The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Quarter of U.S. covid deaths were probably preventable with vaccination

DeMarcus Hicks gives a coronavirus vaccine booster shot in December in Federal Way, Wash. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

Within weeks, it’s likely that the 1,000,000th American will die of covid-19. The millionth death on record, that is — it’s likely that the number of deaths is undercounted. At the outset of the pandemic, after all, medical professionals didn’t know what they were looking for, and Americans were unprepared for the effects of the coronavirus and the disease it causes.

The good news is that there now exist vaccines that largely eliminate the risk of death. Data from the months since vaccination was made broadly available in the United States has consistently shown that those who are vaccinated are far less likely to succumb to covid-19 than those who aren’t.

New analysis from the Peterson Center on Healthcare and Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) quantifies the effects of vaccination. Since June 2021, the point at which every American adult had access to coronavirus vaccines, they estimate that just over 234,000 unvaccinated Americans died who could have lived had they been immunized against the virus.

That’s nearly a quarter of the total death toll from the pandemic.

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Most Americans recognize that the deadliest period for the pandemic was the winter of 2020-2021. But the combination of the delta variant last fall and the emergence of omicron in December has meant that the country has seen a steady monthly death toll since September — that is, within the window of vaccine availability.

Peterson and KFF analyzed the monthly death toll, parsing out vaccination status and controlling both for age (older Americans are still at increased risk of death even when vaccinated) and for the imperfect efficacy of the vaccines. That allowed them to estimate the number of preventable deaths per month from last June through March.

Particularly during last year’s delta surge, most of the deaths each month could have been prevented with vaccination.

Since June (and excluding April, for which data is not yet complete), about 61 percent of covid-19 deaths were probably preventable had the decedent been vaccinated. Given that well over half of deaths during the pandemic occurred before that point, it’s remarkable that just shy of a quarter of the total pandemic death toll in the United States was probably preventable.

Since this analysis is based on national data, the researchers didn’t break down the number of preventable deaths per state. But we would be remiss if we didn’t note that this phenomenon is not independent of politics.

Over the course of the period during which vaccinations were broadly available, KFF has been assessing the partisan divide in vaccine uptake. There are gaps in the likelihood of being vaccinated by age and race. But the broadest gap seen in KFF’s data is by party. Last November, it estimated that the unvaccinated were three times as likely to be Republican as to be Democrats.

That correlates with where coronavirus deaths are occurring. During the period since September in which the delta and then omicron variants struck, it was consistently counties that voted for President Donald Trump in 2020 that saw more per capita deaths. Lower vaccination, more death.

It is rare that there is a political issue that translates directly into literal death. This is one. Skepticism about vaccination — an impulse stoked opportunistically by Republican politicians such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and right-wing media figures such as Fox News’s Tucker Carlson — suppressed immunization rates among Republicans. More than 200,000 people died without the protection that the vaccines demonstrably offered.

Had the country embraced the utility of the vaccines in a bipartisan manner from the outset, what would our death toll be today?