COVID deaths top 700,000

The last 100,000 deaths occurred during time when vaccines were available to any American over the age of 12. Tens of millions of Americans have refused to get vaccinated, allowing the highly contagious delta variant to increased by 100,000 in 3 1/2 months.

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National News

October 4, 2021 - 9:10 AM

Physicians are working to combat misinformation dispersed by Kansans for Health Freedom and other groups about the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines, which help prevent serious illness and death from the virus. Photo by (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

It’s a milestone that by all accounts didn’t have to happen this soon.

The U.S. death toll from COVID-19 eclipsed 700,000 late Friday. The last 100,000 deaths occurred during a time when vaccines — which overwhelmingly prevent deaths, hospitalizations and serious illness — were available to any American over the age of 12.

The milestone is deeply frustrating to doctors, public health officials and the American public, who watched a pandemic that had been easing earlier in the summer take a dark turn. Tens of millions of Americans have refused to get vaccinated, allowing the highly contagious delta variant to tear through the country and send the death toll from 600,000 to 700,000 in 3½ months.

Florida suffered by far the most deaths of any state during that period, with the virus killing about 17,000 residents since the middle of June. Texas was second with 13,000 deaths. The two states account for 15% of the country’s population, but more than 30% of the nation’s deaths since the nation crossed the 600,000 threshold.

Dr. David Dowdy, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who has analyzed publicly reported state data, said it’s safe to say at least 70,000 of the last 100,000 deaths were in unvaccinated people. And of those vaccinated people who died with breakthrough infections, most caught the virus from an unvaccinated person, he said.

“If we had been more effective in our vaccination, then I think it’s fair to say, we could have prevented 90% of those deaths,” since mid-June, Dowdy said.

“It’s not just a number on a screen,” Dowdy said. “It’s tens of thousands of these tragic stories of people whose families have lost someone who means the world to them.”

Danny Baker is one of them.

The 28-year-old seed hauler from Riley, Kansas, contracted COVID-19 over the summer, spent more than a month in the hospital and died Sept. 14. He left behind a wife and a 7-month-old baby girl.

“This thing has taken a grown man, 28-year-old young man, 6’2”, 300-pound man, and took him down like it was nothing,” said his father, 56-year-old J.D. Baker, of Milford, Kansas. “And so if young people think that they’re still … protected because of their youth and their strength, it’s not there anymore.”

In the early days of the pandemic, Danny Baker, who was a championship trap shooter in high school and loved hunting and fishing, insisted he would be first in line for a vaccine, recalled his mother.

But just as vaccinations opened up to his age group, the U.S. recommended a pause in use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to investigate reports of rare but potentially dangerous blood clots. The news frightened him, as did information swirling online that the vaccine could harm fertility, though medical experts say there’s no biological reason the shots would affect fertility. 

His wife also was breastfeeding, so they decided to wait. Health experts now say breastfeeding mothers should get the vaccine for their own protection and that it may even provide some protection for their babies through antibodies passed along in breastmilk.

“There’s just a lot of miscommunication about the vaccine,” said his wife, 27-year-old Aubrea Baker, a labor and delivery nurse, adding that her husband’s death inspired a Facebook page and at least 100 people to get vaccinated. “It’s not that we weren’t going to get it. We just hadn’t gotten it yet.”

When deaths surpassed 600,000 in mid-June, vaccinations already were driving down caseloads, restrictions were being lifted and people looked forward to life returning to normal over the summer. Deaths per day in the U.S. had plummeted to an average of around 340, from a high of over 3,000 in mid-January. Soon afterward, health officials declared it a  pandemic of the unvaccinated.

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