5 Ways to Understand the U.S. Climb to 800,000 COVID Deaths

Grappling with another horrifying milestone as Omicron looms.

A memorial installed last month outside Griffith Observatory honoring Los Angeles County residents who have died from COVID-19. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images
A memorial installed last month outside Griffith Observatory honoring Los Angeles County residents who have died from COVID-19. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

At least 800,000 Americans have now died from COVID-19 as the U.S. heads into its second pandemic winter still under siege from the Delta variant and facing the threat of a wave of additional cases from the likely far more transmissible new Omicron variant. The loss of so many individual lives and the impact that has had on the families, friends, caregivers, and communities of those who died is and always will be difficult to fully comprehend. As the nation prepares for what seems certain to be another challenging phase of the pandemic, below we take a brief look at some of the reasons the U.S., which remains the world leader in COVID deaths, has reached this grim new milestone.


COVID deaths are accumulating faster again

Illustration: Our World in Data/Johns Hopkins University

More than 450,000 Americans have been killed by COVID just this year, and more than 1,200 are still dying from the virus each day — a rate that is once again on the rise. Further, despite the wide availability of vaccines since this spring and the fact that over 60 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, once again it has been taking less and less time for the cumulative U.S. death toll to rise. According to CDC data, while it took 121 days for the total number of COVID deaths in the U.S. to rise from 500,000 to 600,000 and another 105 days for the toll to reach 700,000, the last 100,000 deaths have accumulated in fewer than 80 days:


The pandemic is still a death trap for the oldest Americans

As has consistently been the case throughout the pandemic, most of the Americans who have died of COVID have been seniors. The New York Times reported Monday that 75 percent of all U.S. COVID deaths have been among people 65 and older. On average, one out of every 100 older Americans has been killed by the virus.

As the Times notes, though 87 percent of seniors have been fully vaccinated — making them the most vaccinated age group in the country — there remain a lot of unvaccinated people that are highly vulnerable. And fully vaccinated seniors, many of whom were the first Americans to get the shots, are now at risk because of waning immunity and other factors:

Since vaccines first became available a year ago, older Americans have been vaccinated at a much higher rate than younger age groups and yet the brutal toll on them has persisted. The share of younger people among all virus deaths in the United States increased this year, but, in the last two months, the portion of older people has risen once again, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. …

Many older people who are unvaccinated have died of the virus. And the natural weakening of immune systems and organ function, geriatricians say, leave even vaccinated older people more vulnerable. The most recent available C.D.C. data on deaths among vaccinated people, which does not include those in the past 10 weeks, shows breakthrough deaths to be a small fraction of the nation’s toll. But there is no doubt that breakthrough infections in older people have resulted in some deaths.

Booster shots are now the best available tool to protect seniors who are already vaccinated, especially if full vaccination proves less effective against the looming Omicron variant. But millions of older Americans have yet to get them. Barely half of nursing-home residents in the U.S. had received boosters through the first week of December, and less than half of American seniors overall had gotten boosters as of late November.


Deaths from COVID remain concentrated among the unvaccinated

A Reuters analysis shows that through the first 11 months of 2021, eight of the ten states that recorded the highest numbers of COVID deaths per capita were in the southern U.S., led by Alabama and Oklahoma. Nearly all of the states with the highest per capita death tolls this year rank among those with the lowest rates of full vaccination.

During the month of September, amid the last peak of the Delta wave, CDC data showed that on average, people who were unvaccinated were 14 times more likely to die from COVID-19 as people who were fully vaccinated.

The U.S. weekly death rate by vaccination status, through October 2, 2021. Illustration: Our World in Data/CDC


163,000 deaths may have been preventable

According to researchers at the Kaiser Family Foundation, 163,000 of America’s COVID deaths from the beginning of June through the end of November would have been prevented if those adults who died had gotten vaccinated. The analysis is based on the fact that COVID vaccines, which a recent CDC study found have been between 91 and 94 percent effective at preventing death from COVID-19, have been widely available to all American adults since early May.

Illustration: Peterson-KFF

According to the KFF researchers’ calculations, COVID was the third leading cause of death in the U.S. in November, when 29,000 American lives likely could have been saved by vaccination.


COVID vaccination may have prevented more than 1 million additional deaths and 10 million hospitalizations

As far as how much higher the U.S. COVID death toll might have been without the availability of vaccines, a new analysis by researchers at the Commonwealth Fund and Yale School of Public Health estimates that the country’s vaccination program prevented nearly 1.1 million deaths from COVID-19 since last December, when vaccines were rolled out, through the end of November 2021. That would mean the U.S. death toll over that period could have been 3.2 times higher than it was. The researcher’s model, a simulated trajectory of the pandemic without vaccines, also estimates that the number of U.S. deaths could have briefly climbed to more than 21,000 per day in late summer during the Delta wave — more than five times the highest recorded daily death toll during the height of the winter wave in January.

Illustration: Commonwealth Fund

The analysis also estimates that vaccinations prevented more than 10.3 million hospitalizations, nearly five times higher than the actual total since last December — which the researchers note could have caused a “catastrophic flood” of hospital patients. That surge could have led to even more deaths from other causes, if overwhelmed hospital systems were not able to handle all non-COVID patients in need of care.

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5 Ways to Understand the U.S. Climb to 800,000 COVID Deaths