We are almost at the anniversary of San Antonio’s shutdown three years ago. We are still seeing Covid cases almost daily. Since most people have some immunity by being vaccinated, being sick or both, we don’t see many seriously ill people. One young man remarked that he felt much sicker when he got it recently than he did with a previous infection. It’s hard to predict. One patient told me that she was a Novid. When I asked her what that meant, she said that it stood for Never had cOVID. Still hundreds of people a day are dying due to infections. This article from US News and World Report gives us an update.
Three Years into the Pandemic: Who is Dying from COVID-19 Now?
Three years ago this Saturday, the head of the World Health Organization first called COVID-19 a pandemic, shepherding the world into a tumultuous period marked by fear, isolation, sickness, death – and finger-pointing.
Much has changed since March 11, 2020. Vaccines and therapeutics became available. Masks were adopted by many – until they weren’t. Rapid testing grew massively in popularity, offering convenience but obscuring the true picture of coronavirus infections. Officials stopped trying to control the spread of COVID-19, instead focusing on preventing the worst outcomes, like hospitalizations and deaths.
Entering the fourth year of living with the coronavirus, many Americans are ready to put the pandemic in the rearview mirror – that includes the Biden administration, which plans to end the COVID-19 emergency declarations in May. Concerns over the pandemic in the U.S. are among the lowest ever as infections, deaths and hospitalizations decrease and the country for the first time avoided a massive winter surge.
The world is also the closest it’s ever been to the end of the pandemic.
“We remain hopeful that in the coming year, the world will transition to a new phase in which we reduce hospitalizations and deaths to the lowest possible level, and health systems are able to manage COVID-19 in an integrated and sustainable way,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in January.
According to WHO, at least 90% of the global population has some level of immunity to the coronavirus whether through vaccination, infection or both.
Who Is Dying From COVID-19 Now?
Globally, more than 6.8 million people have died from COVID-19. That number is considered to be an undercount, with some reports estimating the true death toll is more than double the official count.
The U.S. reports the highest COVID-19 death toll of any country at over 1.1 million. While deaths have declined as immunity across the population increased, more than 300 Americans are still dying from the coronavirus each day.
The vast majority of coronavirus deaths during the pandemic have been among older adults. A recent study from WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than 80% of COVID-19 global deaths during the first two years of the pandemic were among people aged 60 and older.
The trend is holding true in the U.S., where close to 90% of COVID-19 deaths reported in February were among people aged 65 and older, according to CDC data.
At the start of the pandemic, the COVID-19 mortality rate for Black Americans was significantly higher than among white people.
Dr. Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association, says that many of the first people affected by the pandemic didn’t have the option to stay at home, whether that was because of work or other responsibilities.
“Those people just tend to be people of color,” Benjamin says. “If they got infected, they were much more likely to be hospitalized. And then because we have these underlying health disparities, which disproportionately impact communities of color – heart disease, lung disease, kidney disease, more hypertension – early evidence showed that those populations, when you had those chronic diseases, you were much more likely to get sicker and die should you get COVID.”
While the COVID-19 death rates for Black and white Americans have leveled off and even reversed at times in recent months, that doesn’t mean health disparities won’t continue to be an issue.
“We still have enormous disparities in hospitalizations and deaths, and so three years into the pandemic, that has not improved substantially,” Benjamin says.
Other factors worth noting for COVID-19 deaths include vaccination status and political stance.
The vast majority of Americans – 81% – have received at least the primary COVID-19 shots. For a while, most Americans who were dying of the coronavirus were unvaccinated. But more recently, that isn’t the case.
Experts point to several reasons for the trend. With so many Americans vaccinated, it makes sense that more deaths would start coming from that population as vaccine efficacy wanes over time. Additionally, Americans who are at higher risk of dying from COVID-19 are more likely to be vaccinated.
But some used the data to argue that vaccines are ineffective.
“Those numbers have been misused to argue that the vaccine is not working, and that’s not true,” Benjamin says.
Studies have also found that more Republicans than Democrats have died from COVID-19. According to a study, excess death rates in Florida and Ohio were 76% higher among registered Republicans than Democrats from March 2020 to December 2021. The gap between the two parties widened once COVID-19 vaccines were available, and study authors noted that the largest differences come from areas with low vaccination rates.
A U.S. News analysis found that counties where former President Donald Trump received the most votes by a massive margin have a 52% higher death rate over the course of the pandemic than counties where President Joe Biden won in a relative landslide.
The Partisan Pandemic
Much of the politicization about the immediate response to the coronavirus has subsided. Polarizing mask requirements and vaccine mandates have largely been withdrawn, repealed or revoked. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading epidemiologist and arguably the face of the pandemic – who, in the opinions of some groups, became a divisive figure – has stepped down from his decades of public service to the nation. And the spigot has closed on the massive emergency federal funds led by former President Donald Trump and continued under President Joe Biden.
Now, most of the partisan debate revolves around the ongoing question over the origin of the virus. Republicans seized on the issue after Trump during his presidency frequently provoked China with references to its part in the emergence of the virus. But that suspicion grew in strength after the Department of Energy in recent days decided with “low” confidence that the coronavirus most likely came from a laboratory in China after previously saying it was uncertain how the virus originated.
With the change, the Energy Department joined the FBI in its view – though, to be sure, neither agency has gone as far as to say the release was either intentional or that it occurred in the course of developing any sort of bioweapon. The National Intelligence Council in 2021 reported that the intelligence community is in agreement that “the virus was not developed as a biological weapon.” The report also stated that the intelligence community “assesses China’s officials did not have foreknowledge of the virus before the initial outbreak of COVID-19 emerged.”
Origin theories are fraught with geopolitical consequences, as China has long been sensitive to any suggestion that its scientists could intentionally or unintentionally be responsible for the release of the virus. A conclusion in that direction would almost certainly set off a political effort to impose punishments or recover reparations – moves that would heighten already strained relationships between Beijing and the West.
The Biden administration downplayed the DOE report, saying that the U.S. government and the intelligence community have not reached a “definitive conclusion.” Four intelligence agencies and the National Intelligence Council believe the route was natural transmission from animal to human. Two other agencies, which include the CIA, are still undecided.
And so the uncertainty lingers as both the World Health Organization and the FBI have accused China of stalling origin investigations.
“We will not stop until we understand the origins of this, and it is becoming increasingly difficult because the more time that passes, the more difficult it becomes to really understand what happened in those early stages of the pandemic,” WHO’s Maria Van Kerkhove said at a press conference last month.
Efforts To Memorialize the Dead
The numbers are hard if not impossible to grasp: 1.1 million Americans dead from the pandemic. Efforts are underway to honor the lives lost.
National grassroots nonprofit Marked by Covid is “focused on securing a federally-recognized Covid Memorial Day and permanent National Covid Memorial to ensure that our loved ones – and the reasons for their needless deaths – are not forgotten, and that the most harmed communities have a safe place to grieve and honor those lost.”
Kristin Urquiza helped found the organization after her father died of COVID-19 in June 2020.
“Part of our aim and our mission is to ensure that this time is really recorded in history as a humanitarian crisis in which we’ve lost a lot of lives,” Urquiza says.
The group has worked with over 150 local jurisdictions to support resolutions and ordinances for a memorial day for the COVID-19 victims. On the federal level, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Rep. Greg Stanton of Arizona – all Democrats – have introduced a bill to designate the first Monday of March as “COVID-19 Victims Memorial Day.”
“Too many families know the pain and have felt the heartbreak that is losing a loved one to COVID-19,” Markey said in a statement. “As we approach the third year of this pandemic, we must continue to honor the lives of the more than one million of our fellow Americans – friends, neighbors, loved ones – who have been lost to this horrible disease. This resolution recognizes our nation’s immeasurable mourning and serves as a reminder for Congress to renew its commitment to protecting communities from this ongoing public health crisis.”
Urquiza acknowledges that much of the pandemic was politicized but said that remembrance and recognition could be used as a tool for unity.
“When I think about the importance of not letting this be shoved underneath the table, it’s not just about the here and the now and teaching future generations. It’s also about putting a line in the sand that nobody in this country is disposable, and that we will learn from what we did well, learn from where we made mistakes and commit to doing better next time,” Urquiza says.
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