The latest milestone is deeply frustrating to public health leaders and medical professionals on the front lines because vaccines have been available to all eligible Americans for nearly six months and the shots overwhelmingly protect against hospitalisations and death.
An estimated 70 million eligible Americans remain unvaccinated, providing kindling for the variant.
"You lose patients from COVID and it should not happen," said Debi Delapaz, a nurse manager at UF Health Jacksonville who recalled how the hospital was at one point losing eight patients a day to COVID-19 during the summer surge.
"This is something that should not happen."
Despite the rising death toll, there are signs of improvement.
Nationwide, the number of people now in the hospital with COVID-19 has fallen to about 75,000 from more than 93,000 in early September.
New cases are on the downswing at about 112,000 a day on average, a drop of about one-third over the past two-and-a-half weeks.
Deaths, too, appear to be declining, averaging about 1900 a day versus more than 2000 about a week ago.
The easing of the summer surge has been attributed to more mask wearing and more people getting vaccinated.
The decrease in case numbers could also be due to the virus having burned through susceptible people and running out of fuel in some places.
Dr Anthony Fauci, the US 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."
One influential model, from the University of Washington, projects new cases will bump up again this autumn, but vaccine protection and infection-induced immunity will prevent the virus taking as many lives as it did last winter.