US Covid deaths hit 600,000 as ex-Biden adviser says high toll was avoidable

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<span>Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP</span>
Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP

The US death toll in the coronavirus pandemic passed 600,000 on Tuesday. As it did so, a former White House Covid adviser, Andy Slavitt, was under fire from the right for saying Americans could have avoided such severe losses if they had been prepared to “sacrifice a little bit for one another”.

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Throughout the pandemic, Republicans have been less likely to wear masks and observe other public health measures meant to mitigate virus transmission. Donald Trump eschewed social distancing guidelines to hold rallies or events. His supporters are now more likely to say they will “definitely not” get vaccinated than Democrats or independents.

Slavitt left the Biden administration this month. His remarks on CBS on Monday echoed past comments about the importance of wearing masks and social distancing to protect essential workers.

“We would have had a pandemic here in the US no matter what, but we can count the mistakes,” he said. “We obviously had a set of technical mistakes with the testing and the PPE that we know about.”

He added: “We all need to look at one another, and ask ourselves what do we need to do better next time, and in many respects being able to to sacrifice a little bit for one another to get through this and save more lives … I think that’s something we could have all done a little better on.”

Most counts on Tuesday put the US past 600,000 deaths – the widely trusted and cited count by Johns Hopkins University passed the milestone at lunchtime. Cases are down but the US still has among the worst death rates per capita, eclipsed only by Peru, Brazil, Argentina and Colombia, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. Those nations had later access to Covid-19 vaccines and have vaccinated fewer people.

Slavitt is promoting a book, Preventable: The Inside Story of How Leadership Failures, Politics and Selfishness Doomed the US Coronavirus Response.

Critics on the right argued that Americans had sacrificed enough.

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“The government screwed up testing, slow-rolled vaccine approval, discouraged masks in the early days, told people to wash their groceries and closed parks and beaches,” said an editor of the libertarian magazine Reason on Twitter, referring to the early days of the pandemic under the Trump administration, in spring 2020. “But [according to Slavitt] it is you, the citizen, who did it wrong.”

Public health leaders including Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, defended Slavitt, saying criticism “does not reflect what we know about who has been at greatest risk of infection”.

On Tuesday, Slavitt spoke to CNN.

“We as a country could have put the lives of people higher on the list versus our own individual liberties,” he said.

“We as a country decided that we were going to get many, many more people exposed without pay, without healthcare insurance, without support. And so we decided that the creature comforts – keeping the meatpacking plants open when they were unsafe – were more important than making sure we protected each other.”

Although the US had several lockdowns, most were far less severe than in other countries, leading to increased spread of Covid-19. The issue quickly became political. Michigan, for example, saw sustained anti-lockdown sentiment and also suffered some of the worst outbreaks in the pandemic. Experts have argued that the US still does not have enough testing to tamp down future outbreaks.

Just over half of the US population has received one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, with vaccination rates inching upward. But vaccination rates in Republican- and Democratic-leaning states have diverged.

States across the south and west, most likely to be led by Republicans, have the lowest vaccination rates. Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Wyoming, Louisiana and Tennessee all have less than 35% of their populations fully vaccinated.

The predominantly Democratic north-east is leading in vaccination rates, with Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Hampshire all having more than 50% fully vaccinated.

Related: Vermont drops all Covid restrictions as first state to reach 80% vaccination

Republicans, rural residents and white evangelical Christians are most likely to say they will “definitely not” get vaccinated. All three groups are disproportionately likely to identify as Republican and support Trump.

On CNN on Tuesday, Slavitt was asked about the danger of Covid variants.

“If you’re vaccinated,” he said, “… the vaccines are proving to be quite effective even against the Delta variant, so you’ve very little to worry about. If you’re not vaccinated, the Delta variant will spread in your community more quickly. It will take less exposure to get Covid-19.”

Slavitt also warned: “If you have more than roughly half the population vaccinated, it’s not as if half the people you know are vaccinated and half aren’t. Either just about everybody you know is vaccinated or everybody you know isn’t.”

New outbreaks would probably not have “quite the wildfire spread as we saw in 2020”, he said. “But they’re still going to impact [less vaccinated] communities pretty strongly.”

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