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Pandemic landmark: 800,000 Americans have died of COVID-19

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Eight hundred thousand lives gone. I'm going to say it again - 800,000 people in this country have now died from COVID-19. We're going to remember some of those lives throughout the show today. But first, we're joined by NPR's health correspondent Rob Stein. So, Rob, this is where we're at two years into this pandemic, more than 800,000 deaths. It is just staggering.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Yeah. Yeah. Rachel, it is just stunning. I remember marking 100,000 deaths, 200,000 deaths, 400,000 deaths, each one shocking at the time. But it was hard to imagine it would reach 800,000. I talked about this with Natalie Dean at Emory University. She's been tracking the pandemic from the beginning.

NATALIE DEAN: It's all so beyond the realm of what I ever could have imagined at the beginning of the pandemic that I feel like my brain hasn't even caught up with some of the reality. That's just such an enormous number.

STEIN: And, you know, Rachel, 800,000, is more than the population of Seattle. And one of the things that jumped out at me is that more people died from COVID-19 in this country in 2021 than in 2020. And that's exactly the opposite of what everyone thought would happen. I mean, this is the year we got the vaccines, which we thought would beat back the virus. It's just unbelievable when you stop to think about it.

MARTIN: So what happened? How did we get here?

STEIN: Well, that's obviously the big question, and the answer is obviously quite complicated. One simple answer is that the U.S. just failed to get enough people vaccinated fast enough, and that's what makes this so tragic. So many of these deaths were preventable. The U.S. developed incredibly powerful vaccines incredibly quickly. They're nothing short of, you know, medical miracles. But we just haven't been able to get enough shots into enough arms to stop the virus. And the reasons for that are a complicated mess of how polarized our society has gotten, how politicized everything about the pandemic has become, how fragmented and neglected our public health systems are, which all kind of conspire to create this worst-case scenario. And then there's the virus itself, which turned out to be far more unpredictable and formidable than anyone thought. Every time we thought we had it licked, another even more threatening variant erupted.

MARTIN: So speaking of which, omicron - right? - this is looming just as the delta variant is surging again and it's winter. And, I mean, should we just prepare ourselves for things to get worse?

STEIN: Yeah, you know, Rachel, it does feel like yet another very ominous moment in the pandemic. As you said, deaths are rising again, hospitals are being overwhelmed again, and there's just the sense that people have kind of had it. They're just exhausted, especially heading into what they thought would finally be a happy holiday season. Here's Natalie Dean again from Emory.

DEAN: And I'm, yeah, feeling like we're still sleepwalking into more death.

STEIN: People just continue to resist getting vaccinated, wear their masks or letting down their guard more and more just as the omicron variant is taking off. And some of the early projections of what could happen are quite alarming.

MARTIN: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, thanks for the perspective.

STEIN: Sure thing, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.