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May 17, 2022

One million Americans have died of COVID-19; vaccines could have saved one-third of them

In the U.S., most people who want to get inoculated have done so. Convincing the hesitant remains a challenge

Prevention COVID-19
COVID-19 Vaccine Study Eric Hartline/USA Today Sports

Since COVID-19 shots became available, nearly 319,000 vaccine-preventable deaths have occurred. Yet, demand for vaccines in the U.S. has been stagnant for months. Above, Stephen Zorzi gets vaccinated before a Flyers game last year.

Nearly 319,000 Americans who died from COVID-19 would have survived if they were vaccinated against the coronavirus, a new analysis suggests. But despite widespread availability, about one-third of the U.S. population remains unvaccinated. 

On Monday, the U.S. surpassed the grim milestone of 1 million COVID-19 deaths. More than two-thirds of them have come since vaccines became available in late December 2020. 

The study found nearly half of the 641,000 COVID-19 deaths that have occurred since 2021 could have been prevented if every eligible American adult was fully inoculated. The researchers created a dashboard detailing vaccine-preventable deaths in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. 

"At a time when many in the U.S. have given up on vaccinations, these numbers are a stark reminder of the effectiveness of vaccines in fighting this pandemic," said Stefanie Friedhoff, a Brown University professor who worked on the study. "We must continue to invest in getting more Americans vaccinated and boosted to save more lives."

Pennsylvania has had more than 14,000 vaccine-preventable deaths; New Jersey has had about 5,500. That equates to a rate of 1,390 and 798 vaccine-preventable deaths per 1 million adults, respectively. 

New Jersey ranked among the states with the 10 best outcomes. Pennsylvania was in the middle of the pack. 

The three states with the worst outcomes – West Virginia, Wyoming and Tennessee – all had more than 2,000 vaccine-preventable deaths per 1 million adults. They each are among the 10 states with the lowest vaccination rates

About 67% of the United States is vaccinated. If 90% of U.S. adults were fully vaccinated, 141,000 fewer people would have died, researchers found. At an 85% vaccination rate, 94,000 lives would have been saved. 

The study was conducted by researchers at Brown University, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard University and Microsoft AI for Health. The dashboard was based on real-world data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and The New York Times. 

The U.S. has plenty of vaccines available. The issue is convincing people to get their shots.

The percentage of American adults who are fully vaccinated has grown less than 3% since the beginning of the year due to low demand.

Unvaccinated adults tend to be younger, less educated and more Republican, the Kaiser Family Foundation's COVID-19 vaccine monitor shows. By last June, the vast majority of people who wanted to get vaccinated had done so. And though most people view the low hospitalization rate of vaccinated people as a sign the shots are working, unvaccinated people view breakthrough infections as a sign they are not. 

"In a world with dramatically increased capacities to develop, manufacture and distribute vaccines, pandemic resilience will increasingly depend on the ability of governments, experts, institutions and community leaders to generate vaccine demand," she said.

"A key step to increase uptake of vaccines is to avoid blaming people and instead listen, build relationships (and) combat misinformation."

In Philadelphia, 77% of adults are fully vaccinated. People looking to complete the initial vaccine series, or get a booster shot, can learn how to make an appointment on the city's website.

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