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More than 900,000 people in the U.S. have now died from COVID-19

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The number of reported deaths from COVID in the U.S. has now passed a staggering 900,000. However, the number of new infections from the omicron surge is falling. NPR health reporter Will Stone joins us now. Will, thanks for being with us.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Nine-hundred thousand is simply a staggering number. How does it compare to other countries around the world?

STONE: Yeah. The U.S. is right there at the top of the list for the most deaths recorded from COVID of any country in the world and right near the top when you look at deaths per capita. And many of those who've died have been older, more vulnerable. In fact, about a quarter of all deaths were just in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. And a huge number of COVID deaths have happened in only the past year, when lifesaving vaccines were available.

So it's pretty clear who is dying during omicron. It's mostly the unvaccinated. They are 14 times more likely to die than those who are fully vaccinated. And as we speak, Scott, about 2,400 Americans are dying every day from COVID, but that number doesn't even capture the full impact.

SIMON: And that impact would be strain on hospitals, the extended effect it has on people who develop long-term COVID.

STONE: Well, yes, to both of those. But when you look at just deaths, you also need to consider what are called excess deaths. That's how many more people are dying each week than we would typically expect. So the majority of these excess deaths are from COVID, but it includes lots of people who've also died indirectly because of the pandemic. And these may be people who can't get emergency care or perhaps delay care because the health care system is overwhelmed or who are having mental health crises, which can lead to overdoses and suicides. Dr. Steven Woolf has studied these excess deaths. He's at Virginia Commonwealth University.

STEVEN WOOLF: If you had talked to me at the beginning of 2021, I would have said that the excess deaths are going to fall; they're not going to be on the scale that we saw during 2020. And unfortunately, my crystal ball did not anticipate the kind of challenges we were to face in 2021.

STONE: And Woolf's research on the first year of the pandemic found the U.S. had about 520,000 excess deaths in total, and just over 70% of those were attributed to COVID.

SIMON: Will, there's no avoiding the fact that we're - we seem to be approaching a million deaths from COVID, but the omicron surge looks to be receding - a 50% drop in new cases over the past two weeks, right?

STONE: That's right. And hospitals are finally feeling some relief. The number of people being admitted every day for COVID is down about 20%. The steepest declines are in the Northeast and Upper Midwest. It's not as dramatic in the West and the South, but it's improving there, too. Remember, though, hospitalizations reached record levels during omicron, and that doesn't just clear out overnight. So there are still tens of thousands of people in hospitals because of COVID, and omicron has brought so much disruption.

I spoke to Donald Wenzler, who's the chief clinical officer at Mid-Columbia Medical Center. That's a rural hospital in Oregon. They count on being able to send patients with heart attacks or strokes to bigger hospitals, but that is incredibly hard right now.

DONALD WENZLER: We have sometimes made up to 30 calls to actually find a hospital that will accept a patient. And once we find the hospital, sometimes we have trouble actually getting transportation services through our local ambulance company because they are also affected by omicron.

STONE: So the reality is different parts of the country are on different timelines. As some hospitals really do feel like the worst is behind them, others are still waiting it out. But no matter where they are, the hospitals I speak to say they are still not at all back to normal.

SIMON: NPR health reporter Will Stone, thanks so much.

STONE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.