CONTRIBUTORS

How a million American COVID deaths somehow understates the enormity of the loss

Josh Gohlke
The Sacramento Bee (TNS)
Gilberto Arias, 15, (R) and Javier Dominguez, 13, place flowers on the casket of Gilberto Arreguin Camacho, 58, who died due to COVID-19, during his burial service at a cemetery on New Year's Eve, Dec. 31, 2020, in Whittier, California. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

A million Americans have been lost to the pandemic, according to the federal government’s official count, making this a disaster that defies most comparisons. And yet it’s so much worse.

By the time the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that the nation had reached the bleak crossroads this week, it was in all likelihood old news and a gross underestimate.

According to one recent systematic study of global excess mortality, the difference between expected and actual deaths, the United States had likely already lost 1.13 million due to the pandemic by the end of last year — more than any other country in the world save India, home to over a billion more souls. The study found that global deaths at that point may have reached 18 million, about three times the number indicated by official counts. As researchers from the Seattle-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation noted in the medical journal the Lancet, “Official statistics on reported COVID-19 deaths provide only a partial picture of the true burden of mortality.”

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Even the partial picture is difficult to behold. According to the official toll alone, we’ve lost a population equal to that of California’s capital twice. In just over two years, the virus has killed more Americans than AIDS, the 1918 influenza or a quarter-century’s worth of seasonal flu. It’s killed more than the Civil War or the World Wars.

And despite the political and public will to believe otherwise, the virus isn’t done yet. Americans are still dying at a rate of more than 300 a day, over 30 of them in California, a toll we’re likely underestimating.

It’s not just in number but also in kind that the official count understates the loss. What’s most sickening is how much of it was wholly avoidable.

More than 400,000 deaths have taken place during the year since highly effective vaccines became widely available. A study led by researchers at Brown University found that nearly 320,000 of those deaths, over 21,000 of them in California, could have been prevented by vaccines. Middling vaccination rates ultimately pushed the United States’ COVID deaths per capita past those of devastated Western European countries such as Italy, Britain and France.

California, which outperformed the country on vaccinations and imposed stricter precautions, offers another measure of what could have been prevented. If California’s death rate were the country’s, as a striking Bay Area News Group analysis showed, nearly a quarter of those million Americans — over 240,000 — would be alive today. If the country endured the pandemic as well as the Bay Area, which took a more cautious approach than California, nearly two-thirds of the dead — over 650,000 — would not have been lost.

But even the safest region in one of the safest large American states is only a partial measure of what could have been prevented. As the excess mortality study showed, a number of countries weathered the pandemic with a small fraction of California’s losses per capita.

These deaths need not have been prevented through economically and socially devastating lockdowns or an improbable triumph over anti-vaccine misinformation. Even now, governments, businesses and people in the most careful corners of a careful state are forgoing precautions with minimal downsides, such as indoor masking and workplace, school and restaurant vaccination requirements. That speaks to an even farther-reaching American disaster: the perpetual triumph of individual whim over collective wisdom.

When Patricia Dowd collapsed in her San Jose home in February 2020, becoming one of the earliest coronavirus losses in America, neither she nor the rest of the country knew what killed her, much less how to save her life. Now the equivalent of Dowd’s city and more lie dead amid a willful and widespread rejection of all that we have learned.

— Josh Gohlke is Deputy California Opinion Editor for McClatchy and The Sacramento Bee.