The World Health Organization said Thursday that new estimates show that the full death toll associated either directly or indirectly with the COVID-19 pandemic between Jan. 1, 2020, and Dec. 31, 2021, is about 15 million.
That number compares with the tally provided by Johns Hopkins University on Thursday of 6.24 million.
The estimate is of excess mortality in the period, calculated as the difference between the number of deaths that occurred and the number that would be expected in a typical nonpandemic year, based on data from earlier years.
“These sobering data not only point to the impact of the pandemic but also to the need for all countries to invest in more resilient health systems that can sustain essential health services during crises, including stronger health information systems,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, in a statement.
Indirect deaths are those that were caused by other health conditions that people could not get treatment for from healthcare systems that were overwhelmed by pandemic patients.
The WHO offered a geographic breakdown of where fatalities occurred and found that most of the excess deaths were in Southeast Asia, Europe and the Americas.
Some 68% of fatalities happened in just 10 countries. Middle-income countries accounted for 81% of the excess deaths over the period. Low-income countries accounted for 4% of deaths and high-income ones for 15% of excess deaths.
The global death toll was higher for men than women at a ratio of 57% to 43%, and was higher among older adults.
“Measurement of excess mortality is an essential component to understand the impact of the pandemic,” said Dr. Samira Asma, assistant director-general for data, analytics and delivery at the WHO. “Shifts in mortality trends provide decision makers information to guide policies to reduce mortality and effectively prevent future crises.”
In other news, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has become the latest cabinet member to test positive for COVID-19, according to a State Department statement. The secretary is fully vaccinated and boosted against COVID and is experiencing “only mild symptoms,” the statement said.
Blinken was scheduled to deliver a long-awaited speech outlining the Biden administration’s policy toward China on Thursday.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Blinken has not recently been a close contact for President Joe Biden.
The news comes as COVID cases continue to rise across the U.S. after their steep decline early in the year, driven by the BA.2 variant of omicron and two subvariants that appear to be even more infectious. The two, named BA.2.12 and BA.2.12.1, were highlighted by health officials in New York state recently.
The U.S. is averaging 65,866 cases a day, up 54% from two weeks ago. Cases are rising in all but four states and territories and have more than doubled in more than a dozen states in the last two weeks. The true case count is understood to be higher, given that many people are now testing at home and data are not being collected.
The country is averaging 17,499 hospitalizations a day, up 17% from two weeks ago, but still at relatively low levels. The daily death toll has fallen below 400 to 375 on average.
Other COVID-19 news you should know about:
• Hong Kong reopened beaches and pools on Thursday in a relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions, while China’s capital, Beijing, began easing quarantine rules for arrivals from overseas, the Associated Press reported. Hong Kong had closed water-sports venues during an outbreak of the highly transmissible omicron variant but has been reducing restrictions as cases decline. Deaths from COVID-19 have fallen from a high of almost 300 a day in March to zero in recent days. Restaurants are also allowed to seat up to eight customers per table — up from four previously — and masks will no longer be required during outdoor exercise, a change that’s important to organizers of group sporting events.
• South Africa on Thursday ended mask wearing for school children despite a surge of infections driven by two new omicron subvariants, AFP reported. Regulations requiring all students to mask up while in class expired at midnight and were not renewed, the health ministry said. However, adults are still required to wear a mask in public indoor spaces, and limits on numbers attending large events remain. South Africa has officially recorded more than 3.8 million cases and 100,407 deaths — the highest toll across Africa — and less than 45% of the adult population has been fully vaccinated.
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• COVID was a leading cause of maternal deaths in parts of Latin America last year, according to a WHO regional official quoted by the New York Times. Dr. Jarbas Barbosa, the assistant director of the Pan American Health Organization, the WHO’s regional arm for the Western Hemisphere, said national governments and healthcare workers should redouble vaccination efforts among pregnant women, who have often had limited access to prenatal care or to hospitals during the pandemic.
Here’s what the numbers say
The global tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 topped 515.6 million on Wednesday, while the death toll rose above 6.24 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.
The U.S. leads the world with 81.6 million cases and 996,713fatalities.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s tracker shows that 219.9 million people living in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, equal to 66.2% of the total population. But just 100.9 million are boosted, equal to 45.9% of the vaccinated population.