Vaccine vials and COVID-19 particles illustrated against a gray background.
Illustration: PGN

Leer en español

What you need to know 

  • U.S. excess deaths have fallen to under 1 percent, but other metrics have increased.
  • Vaccination is a big reason why excess deaths have significantly dropped. 
  • Experts also credit treatments and natural immunity. 

On July 17, the New York Times reported that the U.S. reached a major milestone in the country’s fight against COVID-19: The percentage of excess deaths (the difference between the observed number of people dying each day and the expected number) is no longer abnormally high, falling under 1 percent. For context, during some periods in the past three years, excess deaths have been above 10 percent; during the worst of the pandemic, they were over 30 percent. 

But how did we get here? Vaccines are a big reason why: Over three-quarters of adults in the U.S. have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine. Other reasons include natural immunity and treatment availability. Read on to find out more about what this means. 

What exactly does it mean that U.S. excess deaths are almost at zero?

The fact that U.S. excess deaths are almost at zero means that the total number of Americans dying from any cause is “no longer historically abnormal,” as the New York Times points out in a July 17 article. It’s a major milestone in the fight against COVID-19 because excess deaths have been an important measure of the virus’s toll. For context, in several periods over the past three years, the percentage of excess deaths has been above 10 percent; during the worst of the pandemic, excess deaths were over 30 percent. Dr. Ashish Jha, who until recently served as the Biden administration’s COVID-19 response coordinator, told the New York Times that at this point, “nearly every death is preventable” and that most people who are up to date on their vaccines and get treated for COVID-19 rarely end up being hospitalized or dying.   

How did we get here? 

Vaccination against COVID-19 is one of the main reasons why U.S. excess deaths are almost at zero right now. According to the CDC, 81.4 percent of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and 69.5 percent completed their primary series. As the New York Times points out, most of the people who are dying due to COVID-19 are both older and unvaccinated. Other factors that contributed to this milestone include the fact that around 77.5 percent of people 16 and older in the U.S. have antibodies from COVID-19 infection and the wide availability of treatments like Paxlovid (which was recently fully approved by the FDA). 

Does this mean the pandemic is over?

Not quite. While the New York Times concludes that the milestone in excess deaths means that the pandemic is now over, there are still some indicators that suggest otherwise. The University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy reports that emergency department visits for COVID-19 in the U.S. are up 10.7 percent compared to the previous week, and test positivity also rose slightly. Plus, wastewater surveillance, which is usually an early COVID-19 indicator, is showing an increase in several U.S. regions. So, it’s smart to still be cautious.