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A flurry of new statistics reinforces the message to get vaccinated and take other helpful precautions against COVID-19.

Here’s one for the history books: One of the richest nations in the world with easy access to a free vaccine has recorded a record number of deaths from a virulent disease. COVID-19 has surpassed the so-called Spanish flu of 1918-19 as the most lethal pandemic — in raw numbers — in the history of the United States.

As of Monday, more than 675,000 deaths related to COVID-19 have been reported in the United States, about the same number attributed to the flu epidemic that raged throughout the globe during and after a world war. Today’s U.S. population is about three times what it was in 1918 and 1919, so the flu was more lethal. But COVID-19 shows no sign of abating. New projections from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimate more than 775,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. by Jan. 1.

So roughly 14 percent of the 4.7 million COVID-19-related fatalities worldwide have come from this wealthy, vaccine-rich country with about 4.2 percent of the world’s population. That’s a shameful statistic.

On top of those numbers come reports that, in 25 states last year, deaths exceeded births. In 20 of those states, that had never happened before. Most of those states were in the South and Midwest. Combined with lower immigration rates, the surge in deaths could have an effect on the long-term health of the U.S. economy, impacting everything from school enrollments to job creation.

“We get skeptical people who go, ‘Oh well, those were just older people who were going to die anyway, and you’re just attributing their deaths to COVID,’” said Dr. Scott Harris, the state health officer in Alabama where, for the first time in the state’s history, deaths exceeded births last year. “That is not the case.”

Illinois, according to a University of New Hampshire study, had more births than deaths last year. But the number of deaths statewide in 2020 was up significantly, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. Statewide, there were 132,701 deaths last year, far more than the 108,937 in 2019. The previous 10 years had an average of 105,464 deaths.

Every county in East Central Illinois, including Champaign, reported a noteworthy increase in deaths last year. Champaign County fatalities increased from 1,390 in 2019 to 1,517 last year. In Vermilion County, the number of deaths climbed from 997 to 1,105.

It’s impossible to overstate how badly the United States has mishandled the advantages it had in fighting the coronavirus: the quick discovery of vaccines, the easy access to those vaccines and the inescapable messaging about wearing masks and social distancing.

Perhaps the distressing numbers about COVID-19 and its finality will have some impact as we head into another winter of uncertainty. Modern medicine has given us a way out of this pandemic, but sadly, too many of us continue to ignore it.

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