Why the COVID death rate in the U.S. is so much higher than other wealthy nations

More than two years into this pandemic, the United States death toll is the highest in the world. The country is closing in on 900,000 deaths, and its death rate is alarming -- particularly given that the U.S. was the one of the first to have the vaccine. Geoff Bennett looks at why the nation is struggling compared to much of the world.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    More than two years into this pandemic, the U.S. death toll is the highest in the world. The country is closing in on 900,000 deaths. And its death rate is alarming, particularly given that the U.S. was one of the first to have the vaccine.

    Geoff Bennett looks at why the U.S. is struggling, compared to much of the world.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Judy, those troubling statistics have been persistent since COVID first spread.

    And, today, an analysis by The New York Times underscores just how deep these problems are. It compared the U.S. death rate for COVID to other wealthy industrialized countries. America had the highest rates. And, as you can see on this simplified chart of The Times' data, the U.S. rate was higher than Britain, Germany, Canada, and Japan, just to name a few.

    And the disparity has been even worse during the spread of Omicron.

    So, why are we continuing to struggle?

    We dig into that now with Jennifer Nuzzo, who studies epidemiology and global health at the Johns Hopkins Center For Health.

    It's good to have you with us. And we will start there.

    What accounts for this high death rate, the U.S., as compared to its peer nations?

    Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security: I mean, first of all, we have to acknowledge that it's a complete and utter tragedy, because the vast majority of the deaths have been preventable, because many of them have occurred, in fact, most of them have occurred since the development of the COVID-19 vaccines.

    But what we're really seeing is the effect of the United States not making enough progress in vaccinating adults against the virus . And people who are not protected from severe illness by vaccine are, unfortunately, the ones most likely to die.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    What accounts for that lack of progress on vaccination?

  • Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo:

    Sure.

    So I think, in some places, people still do have a hard time getting vaccinated, in part because maybe they work hours that are not conducive to going to get vaccines. But I think we also have not done enough of an effort to emphasize the benefits of vaccines, the fact that they prevent you from severe illness and death.

    Many people, I think, are probably focusing on the fact that they know somebody who've gotten vaccinated and they still got COVID. But the fact of the matter is, if you're vaccinated against COVID, the likelihood that you will wind up in the hospital is very, very low, compared to people who are not vaccinated.

    So we also have an information environment where people are trying to do their research on vaccines. And, for many people, it's much easier to find lies about the vaccines than the truth and to find information about the benefits of these vaccines.So, we really need to do more.

    And we also need to make sure that we protect the people who are most likely to suffer the severe outcomes of COVID. That includes people who are in the nursing home who may benefit from having a third dose. We have really lagged there compared to other countries in terms of getting third doses out to particularly people over the age of 60.

    But, really, all adults, if you're not yet vaccinated, you haven't protected yourself against the worst harms that this virus can cause.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    The public health response in this country, as you well know, has in many ways been so politicized, just the idea of wearing a mask, the notion of getting vaccinated for lots of people is a partisan issue now.

    Have you been able to quantify the impact of that on the overall U.S. death rate? And how does the politicization of the public health response in this country stack up with our industrialized peer nations?

  • Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo:

    Well, there was an interesting study that just came out today in "The Lancet" or just came out recently in "The Lancet" looking at probably the single biggest predictor of how countries have performed in terms of COVID outcomes.

    It really comes down to public trust. And, unfortunately, when political leaders make a political issue out of simple biology, which is that the virus is deadly and the vaccines protect people, it unfortunately deters people from getting vaccinated.

    I have spoken to lots of people who are not yet vaccinated. And they come to me with — earnestly, but armed with lies, lies that they have seen online, unfortunately, lies that they have heard repeated from political leaders. And if you spend a lot of time talking to people, you can unpack it, and you can change minds.

    But it takes time and it's a really hard thing to scale when we're in the midst of a crisis. So, what we need to do is make sure that people have access to the right information, that they can talk to people that they trust, and that we can make vaccines available to them.

    We should not assume that people who are not vaccinated don't care about COVID. I know lots of people who are scared about the vaccines because of things they have seen online, but are worried about contracting the virus. But we have to continue to have these tough conversations with people and do so in a nonjudgmental, empathetic way, so we can get to that point of their feeling of trust in the message and the benefits the vaccines offer.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Can you point to some things that other countries are doing right when it comes to managing this pandemic?

  • Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo:

    Well, I think one of the things that we have failed to do in the United States is to help people comply with public health recommendations.

    We know that there are barriers for people to comply. Masks are expensive. Getting tested is hard. When people do test positive, that may mean they get shut out of work for 10 or more days. And that's very difficult for some people. We haven't appropriately supported them financially or socially to make sure that they can comply with public health recommendations.

    And that's one thing that we have seen a number of other countries do, and it really helps people comply in a way that they feel supported and not perhaps put upon or feeling as though they — their rights or freedoms have been restricted.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    As we enter year three now of this COVID crisis, where are we in the life of this pandemic? Are we any closer, as close as we need to be, to having COVID be endemic?

  • Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo:

    Well, everyone should understand that this virus is not going away. It's going to be with us for a long time.

    So, any hope that you can sort of sit it out and ride out the storm is an unrealistic one, again, another reason why it's great to arm yourself against the virus, your first contact with the virus, through vaccines.

    The virus is not going away. But we're still very much in a — more of an emergency response period, because the case numbers that we're seeing are still unprecedentedly high. And even if people are protected because they have been vaccinated, or maybe they have gotten COVID before, we're still seeing high case numbers that wind up in the hospitals, where that's a strain on the health system.

    So, I think we have a ways to go. The good news is, at least here in the United States, is that the case numbers are coming down, the hospitalizations are going down. And I expect, in a few weeks, we will see the death numbers go down.

    But we have to remember this is not just a U.S. problem. This is a global pandemic. And so really our concerns about this virus and every other Greek alphabet letter variant that still could yet emerge is not going to be over until we make sure that the world has access to vaccines, so that people can protect themselves and that we reduce the likelihood of mutations occurring across the globe that could sort of undermine the progress that we have made to date.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Jennifer Nuzzo is an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

    We appreciate your insights.

  • Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo:

    Thank you.

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