Think back — for a moment, if you can — to the start of the pandemic.
Try to recall the first time you heard of the novel coronavirus or COVID-19 or social distancing.
How bad did you think it would get?
When the first Americans started dying — in your state, in your city, in your neighborhood, perhaps even in your family — and you saw the death tolls start to rise, where did you think they would climb to?
When newspaper front pages declared 100,000 dead was an “incalculable loss,” what words did you imagine, if any, they might find to describe a figure eight times that?
As of Tuesday, more than 800,000 Americans have now died from COVID-19, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Not even experts can believe it’s come to this.
“This number was unthinkable to me,” said Georges C. Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association. “I was quite frankly astounded when we went over 100,000. But this number makes me very uncomfortable, and what makes me most uncomfortable and concerned is that the loss of this much life was preventable.”
Bob Wachter, chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said that never in a million years did he imagine the death toll would get this high. He’s been consistently surprised in the pandemic — first by the lethality of the original novel coronavirus, then the transmissibility of the Delta variant, and finally by the reluctance of many to take a lifesaving vaccine.
“2021 has a different feeling than 2020,” Wachter said. “2020 was a natural catastrophe and terrible things happen in catastrophes the way they do in bad earthquakes and tsunamis, and although the government response was really muddled, a lot of these deaths were unavoidable.”
“2021 feels very different,” he added. “It feels like most of the deaths were preventable and unnecessary, and in some ways that makes it doubly sad.”
Over the last 18-plus months, the tools to prevent yourself from getting infected have become gradually less onerous, shifting from extreme lockdowns and self-isolation to face-masking to vaccination.
Now, with safe and highly effective COVID vaccines widely available in the US, many unvaccinated Americans are essentially choosing a path toward preventable death.
Unvaccinated Americans are roughly six times more likely to be diagnosed with COVID and 20 more times to die from it, according to multiple analyses. Another study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that at least 90,000 people — mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, friends and strangers — died unnecessarily between June and September alone because they had not been vaccinated. Many more have died since.
“We still have people who don't believe the disease is real. We have people who don't believe the disease is real on their deathbed,” Benjamin said. “And we have people who continue to foster that misinformation.”
Vaccine hesitancy and refusal are phenomena that are present in countries around the world, but like many things in the US, they have been especially poisoned by politics. If you live in a county that voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 election, you’re much less likely to be vaccinated than residents in counties who voted for Joe Biden. Deaths are subsequently higher in Trump counties. In October, 25 out of every 100,000 residents in strongly Trump counties died from COVID, compared to just 7.8 per 100,000 in strongly Biden counties.
This attitude in sections of the American right has been aided and abetted by the conservative media that caters to them, including the country’s most-watched cable news channel. Fox News aired claims undermining COVID vaccines every single night — save for just two — between April and September, according to a count by the liberal watchdog group Media Matters.
“I never thought I’d see this kind of irresponsibility from elected officials and people in the media because that’s what it is,” Benjamin said.
The rate at which Americans are continuing to die from the virus — still roughly 1,500 per day — is staggering. Barely two months have passed since we hit 700,000, a figure that was also dubbed a “completely avoidable milestone” and “an American tragedy.”
But now, with a potentially even more transmissible Omicron variant beginning to circulate, experts fear that rate could spike further as Americans endure yet another dark winter. Continued complacency could make things even worse.
“It’s very clear that this number of deaths to the public has almost become background noise,” Wachter said. “That’s tragic because it just is, but also because it leads us to let our guards down and not respond in a way that could be appropriate.”
“Omicron has led to wall-to-wall news coverage. There’s been a major uptick in vaccinations. But Omicron has so far killed very few people,” Wachter added. “The much greater risk is from Delta than Omicron, but that risk was not getting people to do what they needed to do because they really are no longer paying that much attention.”
There has been progress. In the US, November saw the longest uptick in vaccinations in months and that was before the discovery of Omicron. More than 237 million Americans, over 71% of the population, have now had at least one vaccine. Children aged over 5 can also now get their doses, as their anxious parents exhale just a little.
We also know infinitely more about the virus now than we did when it first appeared in headlines, noted Benjamin, including how to test for it, treat it, and prevent it. “I’m hopeful that we’ve made progress and I believe that we have,” he said. “I can see the end of this, but it ain’t next week.”
It is customary in stories like this — stories that you, like other readers, have probably become numb to by now — to make obtuse comparisons in order to try to give a sense of the scale of the death toll. We can do that for a moment. More Americans have died of COVID than those who live in North Dakota, Alaska, the District of Columbia, Vermont, or Wyoming. It is as if the entire metropolitan populations of Seattle, Denver, or Boston had been wiped off the map. In less than two years, more Americans have died of COVID than those who have died in the four-decade AIDS pandemic. The toll is vastly higher than the number who died in the Civil War.
But those contrasts themselves can sometimes feel overwhelming and ineffective.
Instead, perhaps, go smaller. Focus on the individuals who died, maybe even just since summer waned and the weather got colder.
Among them was a 54-year-old Navy veteran in Pennsylvania, who loved gardening and going to flea markets with his partner.
And a 13-year-old boy with sickle cell anemia in Arizona, who was passionate about WWE wrestling.
And a beloved 70-year-old mother in Washington, who was finally starting to overcome her hesitation to getting a shot and whose family, after her death, found in her phone the last words she’d ever typed into Google: “Where to find a COVID vaccine.”