WASHINGTON (AFP) – The United States, the country hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, crossed 800,000 Covid-19 deaths on Tuesday (Dec 14), a tracker maintained by Johns Hopkins University showed.
The figure is greater than the entire population of several states, including North Dakota and Alaska.
Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, who lead the House of Representatives and Senate respectively, as well as House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy and other members of Congress, held a moment of silence on the steps of the Capitol building on Tuesday evening.
“On this day… we will remember that 800,000 loved ones did not make it this far: a lost father or grandfather, mother or grandmother, a friend, a familiar face in the neighbourhood,” Mr Schumer said in a statement. “All of us know of someone whom this disease has taken away.”
Around 450,000 of the deaths occurred this year, despite highly effective vaccines that were first authorised in December last year and widely available by springtime.
The vast majority of the deaths have been among the unvaccinated.
According to official data, the risk of dying from Covid-19 was 14 times higher among people who had not been fully vaccinated, compared with those who had, in September, the latest month analysed.
Vaccinations picked up during the fourth wave of the disease, driven by the Delta variant, and more than 60 per cent of the country’s 332 million people are now fully vaccinated – though the US still lags behind other wealthy nations.
The country is now into its fifth wave, with the epicentre in colder northern states, as people gather more often indoors.
Omicron, the latest variant of concern that has caused worldwide alarm since it was first reported in South Africa late last month, now accounts for around 3 per cent of US cases, but that is expected to rise rapidly, as has been seen in other countries.
Even if early data suggesting the variant causes milder illness in most people is confirmed, its increased transmissibility and ability to overcome prior immunity may negate this advantage by infecting far more people.
The health authorities are urging everyone aged over 16 years to get a booster shot to restore immunity to levels comparable to what two doses offered against earlier strains.