U.S. marks latest grim milestone of the pandemic: 900,000 COVID deaths

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The United States hit yet another grim milestone in the coronavirus pandemic on Friday: 900,000 deaths from COVID-19.

Put another way, the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus now exceeds the entire population of the state of South Dakota, the city of Indianapolis or the country of Fiji.

According to data from Johns Hopkins University, as of late Friday afternoon, more than 900,500 Americans had died from complications from the virus since the pandemic began, with more than 76 million reported U.S. cases — far more cases and deaths than in any other country in the world.

Earlier Friday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said she would have more information soon about President Biden's plans to mark the milestone, but did not elaborate.

Last February, shortly after Biden took office, the country's coronavirus death toll stood at 500,000. Six weeks ago, it passed 800,000, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi holding a moment of silence in memory of the lives lost.

At the current rate, the United States would pass 1 million coronavirus deaths in March.

Columns representing 400,000 victims of the coronavirus
Columns representing 400,000 victims of the coronavirus at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool on the eve of Joe Biden's inauguration, Jan. 19, 2021. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Over the past two months, the country has seen an explosion in COVID-19 cases driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant. According to Johns Hopkins, there have been more than 17.3 million confirmed U.S. cases in the past 28 days, or nearly a quarter (22.8 percent) of the 76 million total cases since the beginning of the pandemic. (The actual case totals are likely even higher because not everyone who gets COVID is tested, and those who test positive at home are not required to report their results.)

There are signs, however, that the Omicron wave has peaked. All 50 states are reporting falling COVID-19 case rates except one — Maine — though the net positivity rate has started to fall there too.

The White House COVID-19 response team and public health officials this week expressed cautious optimism about the downward trend in cases while warning that the rates of hospitalizations and deaths remain high.

“While we continue to see large decreases in average daily case counts across the country, hospitalizations remain high, stretching our health care capacity and workforce to its limits in some areas of the country,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a press briefing on Wednesday.

A coronavirus memorial at the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, N.Y. June 2021
A coronavirus memorial at the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, N.Y., June 2021. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

According to the latest CDC data, average weekly deaths for those who are unvaccinated are 9.7 per 100,000 people, compared with 0.7 per 100,000 for those who are vaccinated and 0.1 per 100,000 for those who’ve received booster shots — meaning that unvaccinated Americans were 14 times more likely to die than those who have received two doses of the vaccine and 97 times more likely to die than those who've been boosted.

"Similar to other waves during the pandemic, our data continue to reinforce the critical importance of vaccination," Walensky said.

More than 212 million Americans, or about 64 percent, are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. But just 88 million, or 41 percent of the total population, have received a booster dose. That lag has frustrated U.S. health officials.

“Why we don't have more getting the booster? I don’t have an easy explanation for that,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said at Wednesday's briefing. "The only thing that we can do is to continue to come out with the data and make sure the American public appreciates why it is so important for optimal protection to get boosted."