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A positive Covid milestone – The New York Times

A positive Covid milestone – The New York Times

The United States has reached a milestone in the long fight against Covid: the total number of Americans dying every day – from whatever cause – is no longer historically unusual.

Excess deaths, as this number is known, is an important measure of the actual number of Covid patients, as it does not depend on the unclear attribution of deaths to a specific cause. Even when Covid is underdiagnosed, excess death statistics can capture its impact. The statistic also captures the indirect impacts of Covid, such as increases in vehicle accidents, firearm fatalities and deaths from missed medical treatment during the pandemic.

During the worst of Covid, the total number of Americans dying each day was more than 30 percent higher than normal, a shocking increase. In the last three years, the excess was over 10 percent over long stretches. But in recent months, the number of deaths has dropped to almost zero by three different measures.

After three horrific years in which Covid has killed more than a million Americans and altered parts of daily life, the virus has turned into a common disease.

In many other countries, the story is similar, if not quite as positive:

The progress is mainly due to three factors:

  • First, about three-quarters of US adults have received at least one vaccination.

  • Second, more than three-quarters of Americans are infected with Covid, providing natural immunity against future symptoms. (About 97 percent of adults fall into at least one of these first two categories.)

  • Third, over the past year, widely available post-infection treatments like Paxlovid have become available that can reduce the severity of symptoms.

“Almost every death is preventable,” Dr. Ashish Jha, who until recently was President Biden’s top Covid adviser. “We’ve gotten to a point where almost anyone who has their vaccinations up to date and is treated if they have Covid rarely ends up in the hospital and almost never dies.”

The same is true for most people at high risk, Jha pointed out, including older adults — like his parents, who are in their 80s — and people whose immune systems are compromised. “Even for most – not all, but most – immunocompromised people, vaccinations are actually still quite effective at preventing serious illnesses,” he said. “There was a lot of bad information about how vaccines somehow don’t work if you’re immunocompromised.”

The fact that the number of deaths has dropped to almost zero makes this clear: if Covid were still a major threat to large numbers of people, the data would show it.

One point of confusion, I think, is the way many Americans—including us in the media—have talked about immunodeficiency. They are a more diverse group than is often suggested in casual discussions.

For most immunocompromised people, there is little additional risk from Covid – even those with serious conditions such as multiple sclerosis or a history of numerous types of cancer. A much smaller group, such as people who have had a kidney transplant or are undergoing active chemotherapy, are at higher risk.

To be clear, the number of Covid-19 patients has not dropped to zero. The CDC’s main Covid website estimates that about 80 people a day have died from the virus in recent weeks, about 1 percent of total daily deaths.

The official figure is likely exaggerated as it includes some people who died with a virus, although it was not the underlying cause of death. Other CDC data suggests nearly a third of official recent Covid deaths fall into this category. A study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases came to similar conclusions.

Yet some Americans are still dying from Covid. “I don’t know anyone who thinks we’re going to eradicate Covid,” Jha said.

dr Shira Doron, the chief infection control officer at Tufts Medicine in Massachusetts, told me that “age is clearly the biggest risk factor.” Victims of Covid are both elderly and disproportionately unvaccinated. Given vaccination policies, recent victims are also disproportionately Republican and white.

Each of these deaths is a tragedy. Particularly tragic are the deaths that were preventable because someone did not receive available vaccines and treatments. (Here’s a Times guide to help you think about when to get your next booster shot.)

Nevertheless, the number of Covid deaths has now fallen so far that they can hardly be recognized in the overall death data. They can be overshadowed by fluctuations in other causes of death, such as influenza or car accidents.

Almost a year ago, President Biden angered some health experts when he declared, “The pandemic is over.” It may have been too early to make that statement. But the excess deaths milestone suggests it’s true now: the pandemic is finally over.

Related: Researchers are working to ensure developing countries won’t have to rely on wealthy nations for vaccines in a future pandemic, reports The Washington Post.

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