US records 700,000 COVID deaths as cases begin to decline

MINNEAPOLIS — The United States on Friday reached its most heartbreaking epidemiological phase, surpassing 700,000 deaths from COVID-19 as the surge from the delta variant began to slow and give overwhelmed hospitals some relief.

It took three and a half months for the United States to reach 600,000 to 700,000 deaths, spurred by the spread of the variant rampant among unvaccinated Americans. The death toll is greater than the population of Boston.

This achievement is particularly frustrating for public health leaders and frontline medical professionals because vaccines have been available to all eligible Americans for nearly six months and the shots significantly protect against hospitalization and death. An estimated 70 million eligible Americans remain unvaccinated, providing a trigger for the variable.

“It was losing patients for COVID and that shouldn’t happen,” said Debbie Delapaz, director of nurses at UF Health Jacksonville, who recalled how the hospital was losing eight patients a day to COVID-19 during the summer wave. “This is not something that should happen.”

Although the death toll is rising, there are signs of improvement.

Nationally, the number of people now in hospital with COVID-19 has fallen to about 75,000 from more than 93,000 in early September. New cases are declining at around 112,000 a day on average, a drop of about a third over the past two and a half weeks.

Deaths also appear to be declining, averaging around 1,900 per day versus more than 2,000 about a week ago.

Reducing the increase in summer is attributed to more masks being worn and more people being vaccinated. The drop in the number of cases could also be due to the virus being burnt through by susceptible people and the people running out of fuel in some places.

In another development, Merck said Friday that its experimental pills for people with COVID-19 cut hospital admissions and deaths by half. If authorized by regulators, it would be the first pill to treat COVID-19 – and an important, easy-to-use new weapon in the arsenal against the pandemic.

All treatments now permitted in the United States against the coronavirus require an intravenous injection.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the government’s chief infectious disease specialist, warned Friday that some might see the encouraging trends as a reason to stay unvaccinated.

“It’s good news, we’re starting to see the curves,” he said. “This is not an excuse to abandon the question of the need for vaccination.”

Unknowns include how flu season could strain an already depleted hospital staff and whether those who refused vaccination would change their minds.

“If you are not vaccinated or have protection from natural infection, this virus will find you,” warned Mike Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, began seeing a wave of COVID-19 hospitalizations in mid-July, and by the first week of August, the place was overloaded. She stopped elective surgeries and brought in military doctors and nurses to help care for patients.

With cases now declining, the military team is scheduled to leave at the end of October.

However, the hospital’s chief medical officer, Dr. Catherine O’Neill, said the rate of hospitalization is not dropping as quickly as cases in the community because the delta variable is affecting more young people who are healthy and living longer in the intensive care unit on ventilators.

“It creates a lot of ICU patients who are not going anywhere,” she said. Many patients do not go home at all. In the past few weeks, the hospital has seen several days with more than five COVID-19 deaths per day, including one day when there were 10 deaths.

“We lost another dad in his forties just a few days ago,” O’Neill said. “It keeps happening. That’s what the tragedy of COVID is.”

As for where the outbreak is from here, “I have to tell you, my crystal has broken a few times in the past two years,” she said. But, she added, the hospital should be prepared for another surge at the end of November, with flu season also ramping up.

Sandra Kimerley, medical director of the Hospital Quality System at Ochsner Health in Louisiana, said this fourth surge of the pandemic has been the toughest. “It’s frustrating that people are dying from vaccine-preventable diseases,” she said.

At the height of this latest wave, Ochsner Hospitals had 1,074 COVID-19 patients on August 9. That’s down to 208 as of Thursday.

Other hospitals are seeing a decline, too. The University of Mississippi Medical Center had 146 hospitalized COVID-19 patients at its peak in mid-August. That dropped to 39 on Friday. Lexington Medical Center in West Columbia, South Carolina, had more than 190 people in early September but only 49 on Friday.

But Kimerley does not expect the decline to continue. “I fully expect to see more hospitalizations due to coronavirus,” she said.

Like many other health professionals, Natalie Dean, professor of biostatistics at Emory University, takes a cautious view about winter.

It is unclear whether the coronavirus will take on the seasonal pattern of influenza, with a predictable peak in winter as people gather indoors for the holidays. Simply because of the nation’s size and diversity, she said, there will be places where sudden outbursts occur.

Moreover, the uncertainty in human behavior complicates the picture. People react to the risks by taking precautions, which slows down the transmission of the virus. Then, feeling safe, people mingle more freely, which leads to a new wave of infection.

“Infectious disease models are different from weather models,” Dean said. “The hurricane doesn’t change its course because of what the model said.”

One influential model, from the University of Washington, predicts that new cases will rise again this fall, but protection from vaccines and immunity from infection will prevent the virus from taking as many lives as it did last winter.

However, the model projects that about 90,000 Americans will die by January 1, bringing the total death toll to 788,000 by that date. The model calculates that about half of these deaths could be avoided if nearly everyone wore masks in public.

“Mask-wearing is really going in the wrong direction,” said Ali Miqdad, professor of health metrics sciences at the university. “We need to make sure we’re prepared for the winter because our hospitals are overwhelmed.”

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Johnson reported from Washington State. Associated Press contributing writer Zeke Miller from Washington, D.C.

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