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Yes, there have been more COVID-19 deaths in the US in 2021 than in 2020

Experts say not enough people getting vaccinated, combined with the delta variant and fewer safety precautions have contributed to the 2021 COVID-19 death toll.

As 2021 comes to an end, the world is getting closer to the two-year mark of the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has contributed to the deaths of more than 5 million people, according to the World Health Organization.

A viewer told VERIFY that, despite vaccines being available, they heard there were more COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. in 2021 than in 2020. They wanted to know if that was true.

THE QUESTION

Have there been more COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. in 2021 than in 2020?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is true.

Yes, there have been more COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. in 2021 than in 2020.

Public health experts say multiple factors have contributed to the 2021 COVID-19 death toll, from not enough people being vaccinated to the emergence of the more contagious delta variant to people taking fewer safety precautions.

WHAT WE FOUND

As of Dec. 10, there have been 791,130 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. during the entirety of the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Of those deaths, 385,361 were in 2020 and 405,769 have been in 2021 so far.

But vaccines have been available to much of the American public in 2021, so why have there been more deaths?

“More contagious variant, unvaccinated population, normal activities, all of that are allowing lots of people to get infected,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician and senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “And some of those are going to be fatal cases.”

Emily Pond, a researcher at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the U.S. population has been slow to get vaccinated, which has played a role in the high number of deaths.

“The U.S. wasn’t at 25% fully vaccinated until April 2021, so we weren’t seeing large-scale protection from vaccination programs until later in the year,” she explained.

While more Americans have gotten vaccinated, 60% of the population as of Dec. 10, the U.S. still lags behind many industrial countries. For example, the percentage of people fully vaccinated is 77% in Canada, 77% in Japan and 75% in Australia, according to data assembled by Johns Hopkins University.

“There are still many high-risk individuals who have not been vaccinated,” Adalja said.

Data collected by the CDC from 24 different health departments across the U.S., which represent more than one-third of the U.S. population, show that unvaccinated people are at a higher risk of dying from COVID-19 than people who are fully vaccinated. In September 2021, the most recent month the data was analyzed, the CDC said unvaccinated people had a 14 times greater risk of dying from COVID-19 than fully vaccinated people.

Another factor contributing to the more than 400,000 COVID-19 deaths in 2021 has been the emergence of the delta variant, which the CDC says is more than twice as contagious as previous variants. Cases of the delta variant began rising in the summer and now represent 99.9% of new cases, according to the CDC.

“In other areas, where we have less contagious variants, you are able to somehow avoid the virus in a way that you can't with delta,” Adalja said.

Adalja and Pond also pointed out that through a combination of fewer restrictions and pandemic fatigue, many people in 2021 have not been taking the same precautions they took in 2020.

“In 2020, even though there was no vaccine, many people were still social distancing, wearing masks, being really meticulous. A lot of that has worn off,” Adalja said.

Pond said that’s led to more exposure, and when combined with the delta variant, has resulted in higher transmission, more cases and more deaths.

More from VERIFY: Fact Sheet: COVID-19 omicron variant

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