America is well on its way to a million COVID deaths. That’s the worst of any wealthy nation.

Anti-vaccine protestors
Anti-vaccine protestors Photo: Shutterstock

Sometime soon, the U.S. will reach a grim milestone: one million deaths from COVID. To date, the country has seen almost 900,000 deaths. Even with the Omicron wave starting to decline, more than 2,500 Americans are dying every day. At that rate,  we’re just about 40 days away from hitting a statistic that would have seemed impossible to consider two years ago when the virus first started circulating in the country.

Indeed, we probably surpassed the million death marker a while ago. The official count only includes people whose death certificates list COVID as a cause of death. In fact, there are thousands of people whose deaths were likely caused by the virus but not officially recorded as such. By some estimates, the death count may be 20 percent higher than the official tally. 

Related: The bitter satisfaction of judging the COVID queens

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As bad as these numbers are, the worst part is that the U.S. had done a far poorer job than any other wealthy nation. Despite early and abundant access to vaccines and boosters, the per capita death rate in the U.S. is higher than any other large, high-income nation. During the omicron wave, no other comparable nation’s death rate has even come close to that of the U.S.

It’s not hard to see what the reason for this devastating toll is. At the beginning of the epidemic, it was the Trump administration’s deliberate attempt to downplay the virus, with its resistance to following scientific advice. Instead, the White House became a case study in what not to do. Masks mandates were flouted. Amy Coney Barett’s nomination to the Supreme Court became a superspreader event. Trump himself showed up a presidential debate with Joe Biden knowing he had COVID.

That cavalier attitude toward a deadly virus played itself out in Republican strongholds across the country. Indeed, it became a badge of honor to own the libs by rejecting public health measures. At the same time, the conspiracies started to percolate about vaccines in development to combat the virus, the natural outgrowth of the QAnon and Big Lie mindset that had taken hold on the right. By the time vaccines hit the market, misinformation about them was an article of faith for many.

If anything, getting vaccinated is as much a political choice as a medical one. About 90 percent of Democratic voters have gotten a COVID vaccine. Only 60 percent of Republican voters have. Unsurprisingly, the pandemic’s death toll has disproportionately fallen on red counties. The fact that you are 97 times more likely to die from COVID if you are unvaccinated than if you are vaccinated and boosted doesn’t matter at all in that world.

All of which raises the question: are we ever going to be able to move on? At some point, does the country decide that people have to take responsibility for their decisions and the rest of the country has to return to normal?

That’s a tempting thought. There’s certainly some hope that because Omicron infected so many people that we may be moving to a new phase of COVID, but that seems unlikely. There are plenty of uninfected people around the world, leaving the virus with lots of room to develop a new variant.

Moreover, even vaccinated people are at risk from COVID. People with immunocompromised systems are at higher risk from the virus. A recent study found that people with HIV who are vaccinated are more likely to experience breakthrough infections.

Then there’s the stress on the healthcare system. The entire U.S. system is at the breaking point because of the pressure from so many cases. Treatments for cancer and other diseases are being put on hold because hospitals simply don’t have the capacity for them. Meantime, providers are burning out and leaving the profession.

Meanwhile, the anti-vax contingent has taken hold of the GOP. Even Trump has been booed for his ego-boosting attempts to promote the vaccines. Opposing vaccination is effectively a party policy.

Wherever the U.S. ends up, we won’t be pointing the way to the rest of the world, except in one sense: how to handle a pandemic in the worst possible way. But we did that once before under Republican leadership, with AIDS.

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