U.S. death rate skyrocketed by 23% in 2020, normally only changes by 2% each year

RICHMOND, Va. — A new report is putting the devastating toll of the coronavirus pandemic into perspective. In any given year, the death rate across America will fluctuate by one or two percent. Virginia Commonwealth University researchers find COVID-19 caused the number of excess deaths to skyrocket by ten times that figure.

No matter the year, health officials know a certain number of people will die from various causes throughout the world. The excess death rate looks at the number of people dying beyond that number during a given period. Over the last 10 months of 2020, from March 1, 2020 to Jan. 2, 2021, the excess death rate jumped to 22.9 percent in the United States.

“COVID-19 accounted for roughly 72% of the excess deaths we’re calculating, and that’s similar to what our earlier studies showed. There is a sizable gap between the number of publicly reported COVID-19 deaths and the sum total of excess deaths the country has actually experienced,” says lead author Dr. Steven Woolf in a university release.

As for the other 28 percent of those 522,368 excess deaths, researchers note some may still be due to COVID but not listed as the official cause of death. Woolf adds, however, many may be due to disruptions in medical care during the pandemic. This includes patients suffering heart attacks and disease complications not seeking proper medical care over fear of the virus. Those dealing with mental health issues leading to suicide or drug abuse may also have been affected.

“All three of those categories could have contributed to an increase in deaths among people who did not have COVID-19 but whose lives were essentially taken by the pandemic,” explains Woolf, a professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health at the VCU School of Medicine.

Blacks bear the brunt of spike in 2020 deaths

The study finds African American deaths were a major contributor to the rising death rate in 2020. Excess Black deaths account for 16.9 percent of the total, despite making up only 12.5 percent of the U.S. population. The excess death rate among Black Americans also exceeded the rates among Caucasians and Hispanic residents, according to researchers.

“We found a disproportionate number of excess deaths among the Black population in the United States,” Woolf reports. “This, of course, is consistent with the evidence about COVID-19 but also indicates that excess deaths from some conditions other than COVID-19 are also occurring at higher rates in the African American population.”

Does reopening early cost more lives?

Just as different waves of COVID affected different regions, researchers find deaths went up or down accordingly. With the virus first hitting northeastern states like New York and New Jersey, the study reveals an capital A-shaped spike in deaths early in the pandemic. Study authors contend lockdowns and strict safety measures helped to flatten the death rate eight weeks later in this region. However, Woolf argues that states which reopened early faced greater troubles later on, including a second spike in deaths.

A 50-state analysis of excess deaths by a team of VCU researchers discovered which states had the highest rates of excess deaths during the last 10 months of 2020. (Creative Studio/VCU University Relations)

“They said they were opening early to rescue the economy. The tragedy is that policy not only cost more lives, but actually hurt their economy by extending the length of the pandemic,” Woolf says. “One of the big lessons our nation must learn from COVID-19 is that our health and our economy are tied together. You can’t really rescue one without the other.”

Despite viewing the northeast as a model for COVID prevention, the study notes New York and New Jersey both fall into the group with the highest per capita rate of excess deaths in 2020. The other states on that list include Mississippi, Arizona, Alabama, Louisiana, South Dakota, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Ohio.

The study author suggests there will be more fallout from the pandemic later this year as well. Woolf predicts cancer mortality rates may go up if pandemic disruptions forced patients to delay annual screening and treatment appointments.

“American workers are sicker and dying earlier than workers in businesses in other countries that are competing against America,” the VCU researcher adds. “So investments to help with health are important for the U.S. economy in that context just as they are with COVID-19.”

Deaths from other diseases are going up too

The report also confirms a previous study by Woolf’s team, noting non-COVID illnesses are causing more deaths as well. The previous research discovered rates of heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes deaths surged during 2020 too.

“This country has experienced profound loss of life due to the pandemic and its consequences, especially in communities of color,” says Peter Buckley, M.D., dean of the VCU School of Medicine. “While we must remain vigilant with social distancing and mask-wearing behaviors for the duration of this pandemic, we must also make efforts to ensure the equitable distribution of care if we are to reduce the likelihood of further loss of life.”

Despite millions receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, Woolf contends the world is now in a fight to outsmart coronavirus variants.

“We’re not out of the woods yet because we’re in a race with the COVID-19 variants. If we let up too soon and don’t maintain public health restrictions, the vaccine may not win out over the variants,” Woolf says. “Unfortunately, what we’re seeing is that many states have not learned the lesson of 2020. Once again, they are lifting restrictions, opening businesses back up, and now seeing the COVID-19 variants spread through their population.”

“To prevent more excess deaths, we need to hold our horses and maintain the public health restrictions that we have in place so the vaccine can do its work and get the case numbers under control.”

The study appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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