It is natural to look at those charts and feel some relief, appreciating how much immune protection the country has accumulated over time, particularly against severe disease and hospitalization. But the footprint of that steady state is also disconcertingly heavy. More than 300 Americans have been dying nearly every day for months; the number is today above 400, and growing.
Right now, Bedford says, around 5 percent of the country is getting infected with the coronavirus each month and he expects that pattern to largely continue. What would that imply death-wise, I ask? As a ballpark estimate, he says, going forward we can expect that every year, around 50 percent of Americans will be infected and more than 100,000 will die.
This year has been considerably worse than that, largely because it includes the initial arrival of Omicron — which, though often described as “mild,” killed more than 100,000 Americans in the first six weeks of the year. And so although the country’s current trajectory is following an annualized pace of 100,000 deaths, more than 200,000 Americans have died already this year, which implies over 250,000 deaths by the end of 2022.
Michael Mina, an epidemiologist who left Harvard to become the chief scientist at the online medical portal eMed in 2021 after spending most of the pandemic as the country’s leading rapid-testing evangelist, believes it could get worse. With a combination of seasonality and waning immunity among older people, he said, there’s potential for a fall wave of perhaps 1,000 a day. That would bring the number of American deaths, this year, to potentially 300,000 or more.
Questions surrounding the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, as well as vaccines and treatments.
That toll, 10 times that of recent flu seasons, is smaller, to be sure, than those of the first two years of the pandemic, when just over 400,000 Americans died during both President Donald Trump’s last year in office and in President Biden’s first. But it isn’t that much smaller. Nationally, the infection fatality rate is a fraction of what it once was, but the disease is spreading much more prolifically now and has been all year, which means all told the disease is still generating a quite devastating death toll — particularly among the elderly, who have been accumulating immunity more slowly than the rest of the population and shedding it more quickly.
After a recent stumble in which Ashish Jha, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, called the daily number of deaths “low,” the administration has taken to calling the current level “unacceptable.” But there’s little reason to expect that level will fall much, at least not significantly. “You do feel caught in this loop,” says Natalie Dean at Emory, a biostatistician specializing in the epidemiology of infectious disease. “We all probably feel similarly. It’s like — another wave.” If anything, she says, “it does seem like things are picking up now,” with BA.5. “That steady state doesn’t put us in a great place.”