More than 600,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the United States as of Tuesday, a stark reminder of the vast human cost of the pandemic even amid a robust national vaccination campaign that has helped slow the coronavirus’s spread.
The grim milestone comes as the government is straining to convince more people to get the shot. More than 144 million people, or about 43% of the country, are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. More than half the US population has received at least one dose of the vaccine. But daily vaccinations have slowed considerably. At the peak of the rollout, the US was vaccinating upward of 3 million people a day. That number has now dipped to just over 1 million doses administered daily.
The pandemic’s devastation has an enormous lasting impact on the lives of people in the US. Despite recent catastrophic surges hitting countries like India, Argentina, and Colombia, the US still holds the top spot globally for COVID-19 deaths and case counts, with more than 33 million cases recorded since March 2020.
Emergency approval of the vaccines in December signaled a shift in the battle against the virus. Yet the US was nearing one of the deadliest points of the pandemic at the time, with hospitals across the country pressed beyond capacity and morgues overflowing.
On the same day the first FDA-approved vaccines were administered in mid-December, the US reached 300,000 COVID-19 deaths. Over the next month, in the waning days of Donald Trump's presidency — which was defined in its final year by a deadly disregard for science and politicizing the pandemic — another 100,000 people died of COVID-19. By the end of February, the toll reached a stunning 500,000 people.
Now, 15 months into the pandemic, with vaccines widely available for anyone aged 12 and older, hope has reentered the picture. Businesses are reopening, doctors are reporting a day passing without any COVID patients, and the mood across the country is lifting. The CDC announced that fully vaccinated people can return to their prepandemic activities without wearing masks indoors. The number of people dying per day of COVID-19 has decreased to levels not seen since late March and early April of last year, when the first wave of deaths swept the nation.
Experts have pointed out that cases were already declining in early 2021, following a peak in infections after the holiday season. But the remarkable efficacy of the US vaccines — which also appear to be highly protective against the virus’s more contagious variants spreading worldwide — has significantly slowed the transmission. It's a remarkable triumph for a country that has fought over and politicized almost every aspect of the virus, from how businesses operate to basic safeguards like wearing a mask.
But that polarization has continued. Roughly 1 in 5 Americans say they will not get vaccinated against COVID-19, with most of them identifying as Republicans. Some of the people who have died of COVID had refused the vaccine, leaving their families to mourn a death that could have been prevented.
And while the Biden administration announced in May a goal of vaccinating 70% of adults by the 4th of July, that's now looking like it may be unattainable.
"We have always held that July 4 is not the end of it," Anthony Fauci, chief of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at a White House briefing on June 8. "We want to reach 70% of the adult population by the 4th of July. I believe we can; I hope we will. And if we don't, we're going to continue to keep pushing."
Dan Vergano contributed reporting for this story.