The two-year total compiled by Johns Hopkins University comes less than two months after eclipsing 800,000 deaths
Propelled in part by the wildly contagious Omicron variant, the US death toll from Covid-19 hit 900,000 on Friday, less than two months after eclipsing 800,000.
The two-year total, as compiled by Johns Hopkins University, is greater than the population of Indianapolis, San Francisco, or Charlotte, North Carolina.
The milestone comes more than 13 months into a vaccination drive that has been beset by misinformation and political and legal strife, though the shots have proved safe and highly effective at preventing serious illness and death.
Despite its wealth and world-class medical institutions, the US has the highest reported toll of any country and even then, the real number of lives lost directly or indirectly to the coronavirus is thought to be significantly higher.
“It is an astronomically high number. If you had told most Americans two years ago as this pandemic was getting going that 900,000 Americans would die over the next few years, I think most people would not have believed it,” said Dr Ashish K Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.
He lamented that most of the deaths had happened after the vaccine gained authorization.
“We got the medical science right. We failed on the social science. We failed on how to help people get vaccinated, to combat disinformation, to not politicize this,” Jha said.
“Those are the places where we have failed as America.”
Just 64% of the population is fully vaccinated, or about 212 million Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Nor is Covid-19 finished with the United States: Jha said the US could reach 1 million deaths by April.
Among the dead is Susan Glister-Berg, 53, of Sterling Heights, Michigan, whose children had to take her off a ventilator just before Thanksgiving, after Covid-19 ravaged her lungs and kidneys.
“She’s always cared more about people than she did herself. She always took care of everyone,” said a daughter, Hali Fortuna. “That’s how we all describe her: she cared for everyone. Very selfless.”
Glister-Berg, a smoker, was in poor health, and was apparently unvaccinated, according to her daughter. Fortuna just got the booster herself.
“We all want it to go away. I personally don’t see it going away anytime soon,” she said. “I guess it’s about learning to live with it and hoping we all learn to take care of each other better.”
The toll came as Omicron is loosening its grip on the country.
New cases per day have plunged by almost half since mid-January, when they hit a record-shattering peak of more than 800,000. Cases have been declining in 49 out of 50 states in the last two weeks, by Johns Hopkins’ count, and the 50th state, Maine, reported that confirmed infections were falling there, too, dropping sharply over the past week.
The number of Americans in the hospital with Covid-19 has declined 15% since mid-January to about 124,000.
Deaths are still running high at more than 2,400 per day on average, the most since last winter. And they are on the rise in at least 35 states, reflecting the lag time between when victims become infected and when they succumb.
Still, public health officials have expressed hope that the worst of Omicron is coming to an end. While they caution that things could still go bad again and dangerous new variants could emerge, some places are already talking about easing precautions. Los Angeles County may end outdoor mask requirements in a few weeks, Public Health Director Dr Barbara Ferrer said Thursday.
“Post-surge does not imply that the pandemic is over or that transmission is low or that there will not be unpredictable waves of surges in the future,” she warned.
Experts believe some Covid-19 deaths have been misattributed to other conditions. And some Americans are thought to have died of chronic illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes because they were unable or unwilling to obtain treatment during the crisis.
The Rev Gina Anderson-Cloud, senior pastor of Fredericksburg United Methodist Church in Virginia, lost her dementia-stricken father after he was hospitalized for cancer surgery and then isolated in a Covid-19 ward. He went into cardiac arrest, was revived, but died about a week later.
She had planned to be by his bedside, but the rules barred her from going to the hospital.
“I think it’s important for us not to be numbed. Each one of those numbers is someone,” she said of the death toll. “Those are mothers, fathers, children, our elders.”
The death toll reached 800,000 on 14 December. It took just 51 more days to get to 900,000, the fastest increase of 100,000 since last winter.
“We have underestimated our enemy here, and we have under-prepared to protect ourselves,” said Dr Joshua M Sharfstein, a public health professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “We’ve learned a tremendous amount of humility in the face of a lethal and contagious respiratory virus.”
Jha said he and other medical professionals are frustrated that policymakers are seemingly running out of ideas for getting people to roll up their sleeves.
“There aren’t a whole lot of tools left. We need to double down and come up with new ones,” he said.
Covid-19 has become one of the top three causes of death in America, behind the big two – heart disease and cancer.
“We have been fighting among ourselves about tools that actually do save lives. Just the sheer amount of politics and misinformation around vaccines, which are remarkably effective and safe, is staggering,” Sharfstein said.
He added: “This is the consequence.”