More than a year after the first COVID-19 vaccine was authorized in the United States, the disease continues to claim a record number of lives. According to Johns Hopkins University, more than 800,000 Americans have now died from the disease since the pandemic began.
“Cumulatively across these two years, it’s clear that COVID is one of the three most common causes of death in the U.S.,” Amber D’Souza, professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health, told National Geographic in November. Deaths fluctuate from month to month, but D’Souza says COVID-19 trails just behind heart disease and cancer, which each kill around 600,000 Americans annually.
Despite widely available vaccines, more Americans have died from the disease this year than in 2020, when approximately 375,000 people lost their lives. Vaccine hesitancy is one of the factors contributing to the death toll’s steady growth. The arrival of the more transmissible Delta variant this past March has also driven a surge in cases and deaths. The variant now accounts for 99 percent of cases nationwide.
“We had hoped everybody would get vaccinated, and that’s not happening,” says Aubree Gordon, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
Now that the new variant Omicron has spread to more than 30 U.S. states and more than 65 countries worldwide, experts are uncertain how it will change the trajectory of the pandemic.
Why deaths continue to rise
Michigan, where nearly 62 percent of the population has received at least their first dose of the vaccine, is among the states that have been hit particularly hard in recent weeks. Gordon says this is partly because of infections in children, many of whom are still not eligible for the vaccine. Although children are less likely to get severe disease, they can spread the virus widely enough to reach unvaccinated and vulnerable populations.
“The hospitals are starting to become overwhelmed here,” Gordon says. Many of those who are being hospitalized and dying are also younger than what was seen earlier in the pandemic given the high rate of vaccination among people older than 65. Gordon says the majority of people who are dying now are unvaccinated or have comorbidities.
People of color and rural communities are also disproportionately likely to bear the brunt of COVID-19 deaths because of disparities in healthcare infrastructure and funding. Crystal Wiley Cené, executive director for health equity at the University of North Carolina Health System, previously told National Geographic that many hospitals in these communities simply don’t have access to life-saving equipment like personal protective equipment and ventilators.
“Hospitals that tend to care for a disproportionate burden of racial and ethnic minorities are themselves under-resourced,” she says. “That certainly is going to affect the quality of the care that they’re able to provide.”
Gordon also points out that exhaustion with social distancing measures and masking is also behind the rising cases and subsequent deaths. People who have been vaccinated—even those who were initially cautious about COVID-19—have begun to let their guards down after nearly two years of pandemic restrictions.
“I think there’s been a bit of an assumption that people are bulletproof, that the vaccine is going to protect them from infection or if they do get infected that they won’t get very sick,” Gordon says. “We know that’s not 100-percent true.”
The vaccines are still working to prevent severe disease, but Gordon says it’s particularly critical to remain vigilant with the emergence of the Omicron variant. While much is unknown about Omicron’s severity, the virus does seem to be able to rapidly infect people even in populations with existing immunity.
“So there will be a lot of cases—that I think is clear,” Gordon says. “And the assumption is that it will probably out-compete Delta.”
With holiday travel and gatherings on the horizon, Gordon urges caution. Many people may not want to sacrifice yet another family gathering, so she suggests holding them outdoors when possible and taking advantage of COVID-19 tests, which are more widely available than they were last year. Gordon also points to early evidence that suggests people who have received booster doses will have more protection against Omicron.
But ultimately, Gordon says, “I’d caution people to really reduce risk as much as they can while we’re waiting to find out more about how severe this is and how much protection the vaccine provides.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to note that the U.S. has now surpassed 800,000 deaths from COVID-19.