More than 1 million people have died of COVID in the U.S., including nearly 20,000 people from Massachusetts, to date. People continue to die from the virus despite widely available vaccines and growing levels of immunity, Boston doctors say, but not in droves like they once did.
The U.S. has experienced three major variants since the start of the pandemic; alpha, delta and omicron. Each took over as the dominant strain and set off a wave of COVID cases across the state and the country.
Now, two new highly-contagious omicron subvariants are on track to supersede its ancestor. And the prospect of an entirely new variant is always around the corner, experts say.
More and more people are expected to die from the virus, with some projecting over 900,000 deaths in the U.S. over the next year.
Tufts Medical Center's Dr. Shira Doron, Boston Medical Center's Dr. Benjamin Linas and Brigham and Women's Hospital's Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes explained how the death rate has changed, how immunity comes into play and who continues to fall victim to the disease during NBC10 Boston's latest "COVID Q&A" discussion.
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Are people still dying from COVID?
Despite a substantial growth in collective immunity through the development of vaccines and natural infection, people do and will continue to die from COVID-19, experts said.
"Yes, people are still dying of COVID. I think that's really important to acknowledge. It's not true that this disease is gone and that it's something for 2020," Linas said. "There are hundreds of people dying every day in the U.S. of COVID, so I think it's really important that we state that off the top. I think it's also important to recognize that it's much less than it was."
In April 2020, at the height of the pandemic, the seven-day average of confirmed deaths reached 198 people in Massachusetts. Today that number is just over six, state data shows.
The vast majority of Massachusetts -- over 5.4 million people -- are fully vaccinated. Adding to the protection of vaccinations over the last year is natural immunity. To date, more than 1.7 million people in Massachusetts have been infected.
But death remains a risk even with immunity and a less deadly variant like omicron, Doron explained.
"Essentially, almost every American has had either a vaccine or infection at this point," she said. "So there's a lot of immunity, and what that means is that each individual's risk of dying of COVID is small, but when you have a lot of COVID -- and you know that the first omicron wave in December, January, February was really a striking example -- you can still have a lot of death."
During the height of the omicron surge, the seven-day average of confirmed deaths was around 65.
"If we have another big wave like BA.1, you can easily see a lot of death," Doron said.
Who is still dying of COVID?
Many who succumb to the disease are severely immunocompromised, or people who may not have responded to the vaccine, Kuritzkes explained.
"Of course, there are people who have not been vaccinated or boosted who are at risk for severe disease. And so that's why we continue to see death from COVID," he said. "Fortunately, it's much much lower than it had been a year ago and then certainly two years ago, but it is persistent."
The Boston-based infectious disease experts stressed that vaccination significantly reduces the risk of severe hospitalization and death, as well as other protective measures like wearing masks and social distancing.
"If you are an otherwise healthy person who's vaccinated, I think that your risk of dying of a COVID infection is infinitesimally small at this point," Linas said. "But just because that's most of us doesn't make it all of us, and people are still dying of COVID and this is a real disease."
Immunocompromised people can potentially avoid severe disease and death by getting prophylactic antibody infusions, if eligible, Kuritzkes added.