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Littwin: One million Americans have died from COVID. How did we allow that to happen?

Experts are predicting a rapid rise in cases in the fall or winter. Meanwhile, Congress has stalled on a $10 billion bill to help ensure we have the tools to fight the next surge.

It has been months since I last wrote about COVID because, well, I just gave up.

Most Americans, including presumably many of my readers, had tired of COVID, tired of hearing about COVID, tired of being lectured about COVID and decided, in what seemed like a national epiphany, that whether or not COVID was done with us, we would be done with it. 

Mike Littwin

And just because the numbers are starting to rise again, and the CDC is saying that maybe one-third of Americans now live in counties where people ought to consider wearing masks again indoors, nothing is likely to change. We’ve moved on. If you don’t believe me, walk into a grocery store or a movie theater. You might see three or four people wearing masks. If I’m there, I’ll be one of them, and if you want to accuse me of virtue signaling rather than being someone who follows the science, that’s fine with me. 

We know people died because vaccinations quickly became a political issue, rather than a medical question. And we know that when mandates on wearing masks on an airplane or in a restaurant or in schools had come to an end, it was because they had either become too controversial or too inconvenient. So, who was I to tell anyone differently?

This was no longer a matter of ignorance, after all. Anyone with even an inkling of curiosity and access to the internet knows the data. According to the Johns Hopkins University count, more than a million Americans have died from COVID — more than in all the battles that America has fought. More than anyone could have imagined. More than most of us could take. And if we couldn’t/wouldn’t beat it, well, we’d just pretend that we had.

There’s no monument yet for the million who have died. And, as of now, in monument-laden D.C., there are no such plans. Maybe in 20 years or 50 when it’s all just a bad memory. This can’t be a surprise. I remember reading somewhere that Woodrow Wilson never once spoke of the Great Influenza pandemic that killed approximately 750,000 Americans in 2018-19.

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Joe Biden has spoken of it often, but not as often recently. To mark the one million Americans who have died,  Biden had the flags lowered to half staff and said, “As a nation, we must not grow numb to such sorrow. To heal, we must remember. We must remain vigilant against this pandemic and do everything we can to save as many lives as possible.”

But we don’t have as many tests as possible. And we don’t have as many life-saving therapeutics available as possible. And if Congress, which correctly approved $40 billion for Ukraine, doesn’t pass a homegrown $10 billion COVID bill, which Republicans are blocking unless the money comes from other programs, we may not be prepared when an expected new surge hits in the fall and/or winter. 

The White House is saying that we could have as many as 100 million new cases given the success that many omicron subvariants have had in dodging vaccines. The numbers are going up now — cases rising 25% in the past week — although they are far lower than they were at omicron’s worst. And while most experts expect the numbers to stabilize in the near term, some worry that we may be experiencing what they’re calling a stealth surge.

You remember the bad old days, though, when life expectancy in America fell by 1.5%. That was in 2020, the worst drop since World War II. Of course, it could have been worse if you were Black or Hispanic. In those communities, the drop was 3%. Black life expectancy hadn’t dropped so precipitously since the Great Depression in the 1930s.

I can remember, in what was certainly a more innocent time,  when the New York Times printed all the names of those who died when we reached the “incalculable” toll of 100,000. By the time the number reached 500,000, the Times had to use dots. At a million, even smaller dots.

I’ll give you some numbers for old times’ sake. I know. I just can’t help myself. Here’s a shocking one — if the United States had the same COVID death rate as Australia, approximately 900,000 more Americans would be alive today.

Australia is a good reference point. Both countries have the same median age — 38 — and both countries have approximately the same percentage of people living in cities. And yet. America’s COVID death rate is the highest among all rich nations. Australia’s death rate from COVID is 10% of America’s.

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Sticking with our English-language peers, 12% of Americans 65 and older are not fully vaccinated (that’s two shots, or one Johnson & Johnson), and 43% of those 65 and older have received no booster shot. Whereas in England, the numbers are 4% not fully vaccinated at 65 or over and only 9% without a booster.

Why do these numbers matter?

Those unvaccinated are 20 times more likely to die of COVID than those vaccinated and boosted. This cuts across class and race. If you’re poorer, you’re far more likely to die. A California study showed that working-class people died at five times the rate of college graduates. And then there are old people. Yes, old people are far more likely to die — three in four deaths have come from those 65 or older. But there are also 200,000 children who have lost a parent or caregiver.

In Colorado, Jared Polis has been praised, particularly by conservative columnists, as the one Democratic governor who was ahead of the curve in dumping mandates. In a Q&A with Polis and legislative leaders Thursday night organized by the Colorado Sun, Polis showed no urgency in reacting to the recent rise in Colorado. He repeated, as he has often, that so long as hospitals aren’t overwhelmed, no more state action is needed. Decisions would be left with localities.

He did say, though, that he has asked the White House to fast-track vaccines for kids under the age of 5, who still have no vaccine available. The FDA and CDC have just approved a booster shot for kids 6 to 11.

I’m with Polis on the vaccines. I have a 3-year-old grandson I’d very much like to see vaccinated and a 7-year-old, who had a mild case of COVID after having been vaccinated, I’d like to see boosted.

▶︎ Read more of Mike Littwin’s columns.

If COVID does hit us hard again, I doubt I’ll be calling for vaccination mandates or mask mandates. Because they’re not coming back. Americans have basically decided that this is now a matter of personal responsibility, even if that’s not how vaccination protection actually works. 

I just hope if/when it does hit us again, we have the resources to battle it — all the vaccines, the therapeutics, the masks that we need. I’d like to think that all Americans — even the done-with-COVID people — would expect Congress to do at least that much. A million Americans have died from COVID, truly an incalculable number. How many more, I wonder, would we be willing to live with?


Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.


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