COVID-19 has already killed more people in the United States this year than it did in 2020.
Since Jan. 1, more than 353,000 deaths have been reported from COVID-19, about a thousand more than last year’s 352,000 for the first 10 months of the pandemic, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
There are key differences between the two years that could account for some of the shift, medical experts said.
Florida International University professor and Department of Epidemiology chairwoman Dr. Mary Jo Trepka told the New York Daily News that the much more contagious delta variant upped the number of cases, making cumulative totals much higher. That was compounded by the lack of herd immunity because of low vaccine uptake.
“So there were a lot of people being exposed, in the face of not really having herd immunity anywhere, and having the delta variant, which is much more contagious,” Trepka told the Daily News.
In addition, she noted, widespread vaccination was not available till the spring, and this year’s biggest surge was in January, after the holidays. Also, unlike 2020, this year did not see widespread lockdowns.
“The coronavirus doesn’t really know what year it is,” noted Dr. David Dowdy, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “And the death has largely come in waves.”
Tellingly, the biggest wave of 2020 was just after the holidays, before the vaccines were widely available.
Comparing the caseload to the number of deaths is also key, Trepka said.
“The more cases you get, the more deaths you’re going to have,” she said, though that also depends on who gets sick. Elderly or medically vulnerable people have a higher chance of serious illness and a higher death rate.
“There’s a certain risk of death in all age groups, so the more cases you have the more deaths there’ll be,” Trepka said.
The delta variant also changed the vaccination rate needed for herd immunity, Trepka noted.
“We’re hoping that we can improve vaccination rates so that we don’t get another sizable surge like we had this summer,” she said. “The level of vaccination that you need to get herd immunity depends on the pathogen. When you have something that’s very communicable, you have to vaccinate a much higher percentage of the population to get herd immunity.”
Thus both Trepka and Dowdy said, increasing vaccination rates is critical to stave off yet another deadly wave.
“I think it is fair to say that had we been better about vaccinating the population before this most recent wave, we could have averted a substantial number of those deaths,” Dowdy told the Daily News, referring to the summer high, mostly among unvaccinated people, that is starting to ebb.
“It’s still true that even now a third of our adult population is not fully vaccinated, and so we still have a large number of people — you’re talking over 50 million people — who are at risk of getting really sick from this disease and potentially dying,” Dowdy said. “If we were able to get those people vaccinated, that would bring the risk of death from this disease down to — not to nothing, but to a very manageable level.”