Speed Reads

American exceptionalism

America's COVID death rate is much higher than in other wealthy nations, analysis finds. Here's why.

The U.S. has a slightly higher overall COVID-19 fatality rate than other high-income countries. But the death toll from the Omicron wave has really "set the country apart — and by wider margins than has been broadly recognized," The New York Times reported Tuesday night. "Since Dec. 1, when health officials announced the first Omicron case in the United States, the share of Americans who have been killed by the coronavirus is at least 63 percent higher than in any of these other large, wealthy nations."

Given Omicron's decreased severity, U.S. officials and experts had hoped the country could avoid another deadly wave, as some other countries had. It did not work out that way.

"Some of the reasons for America's difficulties are well known," the Times reports. "Despite having one of the world's most powerful arsenals of vaccines, the country has failed to vaccinate as many people as other large, wealthy nations," especially older Americans, and the U.S. "has fallen even further behind in administering booster shots." A recent Financial Times analysis found that the current U.S. hospitalization rate would be much lower if the U.S. had Britain's vaccination rate. 

Americans are now dying at twice the rate of Britons and four times the rate of Germans, the Times found. In Britain, only 4 percent of people 65 and older are not fully vaccinated and 9 percent haven't been boosted. In the U.S., 12 percent of people 65 and older haven't been fully vaccinated and 43 percent haven't gotten a booster shot.

Vaccinations and boosters aren't the only explanations for why the U.S. is lagging behind its wealthy peers. Many Americans are obese or have diabetes, increasing the risks of severe COVID-19. And Americans trust the government and each other less. That trust deficit helps explain why the U.S. fared worse than poorer countries with less robust health care systems, The Washington Post reports, citing a peer-reviewed study of 117 countries published Tuesday in The Lancet

"We found no links between COVID outcomes and democracy, populism, government effectiveness, universal health care, pandemic preparedness metrics, economic inequality, or trust in science," said co-author Thomas Bollyky at the Council on Foreign Relations. "What our study suggests is that when you have a novel contagious virus," he added, "the best way for the government to protect its citizens is to convince its citizens to protect themselves."