Fragmented COVID-19 microbes in coral and white
Illustration: PGN

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What you need to know

  • More people have died from COVID-19 in 2023 so far than from the flu and pneumonia combined.
  • The number of excess deaths since February 2020 suggests that we may be undercounting COVID-19 deaths.
  • Older adults and immunocompromised people, who make up nearly all COVID-19 deaths, can get a second bivalent booster this spring.

The worst part of the pandemic seems to be over, but it’s too early to completely forget about the virus. We are still losing more than 1,300 Americans per week to COVID-19, a mortality rate that’s much higher than what we see for other respiratory viruses. As COVID-19 continues to circulate and mutate around the world, it has the potential to create more bumps and surges. Below, we put our current COVID-19 mortality rate into context and discuss how the most vulnerable among us can stay protected.

Is COVID-19 like the flu yet?

No. While the state of the pandemic has improved greatly from what it was a year ago, the COVID-19 virus continues to kill more people compared to the flu. In 2023 so far, more than 30,000 people have died from COVID-19. The virus was the direct cause for two-thirds of these deaths. For the remaining third, COVID-19 was a contributing cause.

The number of COVID-19 deaths since January is only a fraction of what we saw during the same period last year, when Omicron strains were spreading much more rapidly. But it’s still significantly higher than the number of people who have died from the flu and pneumonia combined this year. More people have also died from COVID-19 than from diabetes or Alzheimer’s in 2023 when including deaths in which the virus was a contributing cause. So while it may feel like COVID-19 is no longer a public health threat, the reality is that many lives continue to be lost.

Are COVID-19 deaths being overcounted?

There’s been a lot of confusion and misinformation around how the CDC counts COVID-19 deaths, but the agency confirmed early this year that it is not overcounting. The CDC has multiple ways of collecting COVID-19 death data in a timely manner, but its provisional COVID-19 death count is based solely on death certificate data. Through this method, only cases in which the virus directly caused or contributed to someone’s death are included.

It’s important to note that the way the CDC counts COVID-19 deaths is different from how it tracks COVID-19 hospitalizations. For hospitalizations, the agency includes everyone testing positive for the virus, regardless of their reason for hospital admission.

What are excess deaths, and what do they tell us?

Another way to get a sense of the pandemic’s impact on the U.S. population is to look at excess deaths. Excess deaths tell us how many more deaths were recorded in a certain time period compared to the expected number of deaths during that same time period. When looking at this measurement, some experts believe we have actually undercounted COVID-19 deaths. Since February 2020, there have been more than 1.3 million excess deaths, compared to the 1.1 million recorded by the CDC.

How can we protect the most vulnerable among us?

Older adults and immunocompromised people make up the majority of COVID-19 deaths. More than 88 percent of COVID-19 deaths this year have been among people ages 65 and older. Nearly everyone who died of COVID-19 had another medical condition, such as another respiratory disease, high blood pressure, or Alzheimer’s.

In an effort to protect the most vulnerable among us, the FDA and CDC are allowing some groups to receive a second bivalent booster this spring. People ages 65 and older will be able to get an additional shot at least four months after their first bivalent booster, while immunocompromised people can get theirs at least two months after. Since protection from the vaccine tends to wane faster in people with vulnerable immune systems, this decision gives high-risk individuals the opportunity to refresh their immunity and stay protected against severe disease.