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'A defining tragedy': US passes 800,000 Covid deaths, highest in the world

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
El Paso County Medical Examiner's Office staff roll bodies that are in bags labeled "Covid" from refrigerated trailers into the morgue office amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in El Paso, Texas, US November 23, 2020. (Reuters photo)

The US death toll from Covid-19 has passed 800,000, a figure that represents the highest reported toll of any country in the world.

"This will be a defining tragedy of our generation," David Dowdy, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told ABC News. "We've gotten to the point where our eyes glaze over on these numbers. But by now, almost every one of us knows someone who has died of Covid-19."

The latest figure, compiled and released by Johns Hopkins University on Tuesday, is nearly equal to the population of Atlanta and St Louis put together, or Minneapolis and Cleveland combined. It is about equivalent to the number of Americans die each year from heart disease or stroke.

This comes less than two years into the pandemic, and despite the introduction of the first coronavirus vaccines, almost one year ago.

"As we mark the tragic milestone of 800,000 American deaths due to Covid-19, we remember each person and the lives they lived, and we pray for the loved ones left behind,” President Joe Biden said in a statement Tuesday evening.

He urged those who are still unvaccinated against the virus to get the shot.

"I urge all Americans: do your patriotic duty to keep our country safe, to protect yourself and those around you, and to honor the memory of all those we have lost. Now is the time."

When the first Covid vaccines were administered last December, many Americans hoped the shots would mean a return to normalcy. However, since last December, a further 500,000 Americans have lost their lives. Of those, just shy of half -- 230,000 – died since April 2021, when Biden announced the vaccine was now widely available to every American over the age of 18.

"The vast majority of these deaths could have been avoided," said Dr. John Brownstein, an epidemiologist at Boston Children's Hospital and an ABC News contributor. "Despite the availability of vaccines, we have seen close to half a million deaths since first shots went into arms last December."

The sobering marker comes as the world braces for an increase in cases of the new Omicron variant, with the World Health Organization (WHO) warning it is spreading at an unprecedented rate.

The variant, according to WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has been detected in 77 countries and is probably present in most countries worldwide.

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