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The U.S. has reached 900,000 deaths from COVID-19

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

Nine hundred thousand. That's the new COVID-19 death toll the U.S. is about to hit, according to Johns Hopkins University. And the number of people dying every day is still rising. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now to talk about this. Hey, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey there, Tam.

KEITH: I can't believe we're doing this again. It doesn't feel like it was that long ago that we were marking the loss of 800,000 lives to the pandemic.

STEIN: It wasn't. You know, the U.S. passed 800,000 deaths about seven weeks ago. So at least another 100,000 people have died since the week before Christmas. I talked about this with Jennifer Nuzzo at Johns Hopkins.

JENNIFER NUZZO: I mean, it's absolutely staggering. It's unreal, frankly. And what makes it even - an even greater heartbreak, as if the loss of 900,000 souls weren't enough of a heartbreak, is the fact that it's probably an undercount of the number of people that we've lost.

STEIN: It shows just how massive and deadly this omicron wave has been. Even though omicron is milder than delta, the number of people catching this super-contagious variant means the number of people getting really sick and dying adds up really fast. And what's even more tragic is so many of these deaths were totally preventable.

KEITH: Let's talk about that - preventable.

STEIN: Yeah.

KEITH: Through vaccines?

STEIN: Well, you know, in lots of ways, if we had more tests, we could have stopped more people from spreading the virus. If wearing masks hadn't become so political, we could have protected more people from catching the virus. But the big one is vaccines. You know, the death rate in the U.S. from COVID-19 far exceeds other wealthy nations in large part because the U.S. just hasn't vaccinated as many people. In fact, researchers at Brown University have just come up with an estimate for how many deaths could have been prevented if the U.S. had just done a better job vaccinating people. Here's Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown School of Public Health.

ASHISH JHA: We would have at least 300,000 fewer deaths, probably more, Rob, probably more than that. But at least 300,000 Americans who have perished would still be with us. It's tragic.

STEIN: But all sorts of things prevented that from happening. The flood of misinformation about the vaccines convinced too many people that the vaccines were more dangerous than the virus. Our polarized society turned getting vaccinated into a political choice instead of a patriotic act or simply a common sense decision. Some people just, you know, weren't able to get their shots.

KEITH: So where do the numbers indicate the U.S. is headed from here?

STEIN: Well, you know, between 2 and 3,000 people are still dying every day from COVID-19 in the U.S. And that number is still rising. Despite all this, people seem, you know, kind of numb to this loss of life. You know, to try to understand this, I called Paul Slovic. He's a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon. He says people very quickly lose the ability to process what big numbers mean in terms of human life.

PAUL SLOVIC: Most of the time, we rely on our gut feelings. How does that information make us feel? And these feelings quickly lose sensitivity even with small numbers. So if - how do you react to 900,000? You know, it's just a vast number. You know, it's been said that statistics are human beings with the tears dried off.

STEIN: He also notes that many of the deaths are kind of invisible, hidden behind curtains in intensive care units. And the death toll will continue to mount for weeks and months even as the omicron surge hopefully continues to recede. Some researchers are estimating the U.S. will hit 1 million deaths by the spring.

KEITH: Wow.

STEIN: Yeah.

KEITH: Thank you. Rob Stein, NPR health correspondent.

STEIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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