The US passed the staggering figure of 800,000 confirmed COVID deaths Tuesday, according to Johns Hopkins University. The total, which the AP notes is equal to the populations of Atlanta and St. Louis combined, is by far the highest in the world, though almost 20 countries have a higher death rate per capita. The total reached 700,000 on Oct. 1. Just 11 months ago, on Donald Trump's final full day in office, the total hit 400,000. The daily number of deaths dropped sharply this spring as vaccines became widely available, but it started rising again in July as the delta variant spread, with the majority of deaths occurring in unvaccinated Americans, reports the BBC.
Experts say 800,000 deaths seemed unthinkable early in the pandemic. Bob Wachter, chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, tells BuzzFeed that this year feels very different from 2020. That year, he says, "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." But this year, Wachter says, it "feels like most of the deaths were preventable and unnecessary, and in some ways that makes it doubly sad."
Dr. Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says "almost all the people dying are now dying preventable deaths" because they are unvaccinated. "And you know that, God, it’s a terrible tragedy," he says. He recalls that one of the worst-case scenarios in the early months of the pandemic predicted 240,000 deaths. A year after the vaccine rollout began, only 61% of the US population is fully vaccinated. "I think it’s fair to say that we’re still not out of the woods," Beyrer says. (The pandemic has killed 1 in 100 Americans over 65.)