US COVID-19 deaths top 700,000 as delta variant fuels pandemic

The COVID-19 death toll in the United States reached 700,000 people Friday, as the nation braces for yet another possible surge as cold weather drives people indoors amid the ongoing pandemic.

The number of lives lost, as recorded by Johns Hopkins University, is greater than the populations of Las Vegas, Nashville and Boston. It’s also greater than the number of cancer deaths in the U.S. in 2019.

"To heal we must remember, and as our nation mourns the painful milestone of 700,000 American deaths due to COVID-19, we must not become numb to the sorrow," President Joe Biden said in a statement.  "On this day, and every day, we remember all those we have lost to this pandemic and we pray for their loved ones left behind who are missing a piece of their soul."

The U.S. leads the world in virus-related deaths. Globally, nearly 4.8 million people have died of COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins data

One influential model, from the University of Washington, projects new cases will bump up again this fall, but vaccine protection and infection-induced immunity will prevent the virus from taking as many lives as it did last winter.

Still, the model predicts about 90,000 more Americans will die by Jan. 1 for an overall death toll of 788,000 by that date. The model calculates that about half of those deaths could be averted if almost everyone wore masks in public.

"Mask wearing is already heading in the wrong direction," said Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the university. "We need to make sure we are ready for winter because our hospitals are exhausted."

The grim and heartbreaking milestone comes as the highly contagious delta variant also continues to drive up infections, as children head back into classrooms and as the Biden administration continues its attempt to get more people vaccinated.

Despite the rising death toll, there are signs of improvement.

A decline in COVID-19 cases across the United States over the past several weeks has given overwhelmed hospitals some relief, but administrators are still bracing for another surge later this year.

Nationwide, the number of people now in the hospital with COVID-19 has fallen to around 75,000 from over 93,000 in early September. In addition, new cases are on the downswing at about 112,000 per day on average, a drop of about one-third over the past 2 weeks. 

Deaths, too, appear to be declining, averaging about 1,900 a day versus more than 2,000 about a week ago.

This decrease could be due in part to more people getting vaccinated. 

Nationwide, 77.4% of adults have now received at least one dose of a shot and 67% of adults are fully vaccinated to date, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. 

RELATED: Merck says experimental COVID-19 pill cuts hospitalizations, deaths by half

In a promising development, Merck said Friday its experimental pill for people sick with COVID-19 reduced hospitalizations and deaths by half. If it wins authorization from regulators, it will be the first pill for treating COVID-19 — and an important, easy-to-use new weapon in the arsenal against the pandemic.

Currently, all treatments now authorized in the U.S. against the coronavirus require an IV or injection.

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Despite the promising developments, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease specialist, warned on Friday that some may see the encouraging trends as a reason to remain unvaccinated.

"It’s good news we’re starting to see the curves" coming down, he said. "That is not an excuse to walk away from the issue of needing to get vaccinated."

An estimated 70 million eligible Americans remain unvaccinated, providing kindling for the highly contagious delta variant.

"If you’re not vaccinated or have protection from natural infection, this virus will find you," warned Mike Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

Biden on Saturday echoed experts who have been stressing the importance of vaccinations.

"If you haven’t already, please get vaccinated. It can save your life and the lives of those you love. It will help us beat COVID-19 and move forward, together, as one nation," Biden said.

On Friday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that its Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) would meet on Oct. 15 to discuss the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson booster shots.

RELATED: FDA to weigh Moderna, J&J COVID-19 booster shots in October meetings

Vaccines produced by both companies are already authorized by the FDA for emergency use. Along with the fully-approved Pfizer jab, the vaccines have played a crucial role in protecting Americans from severe illness and death.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.