COVID sent last year’s U.S. death rate soaring, especially among people of color

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Memorials hang from the front gate of Greenwood Cemetery during an event and procession organized by Naming the Lost Memorials to remember and celebrate the lives of those killed by the COVID-19 pandemic on June 8 in New York City.

Updated December 22, 2021 at 1:42 PM ET

A new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report says that the death rate in the U.S. went up dramatically in 2020 compared to the previous year, prompting the biggest drop in life expectancy seen in decades.

Many of those deaths were caused directly or indirectly by COVID-19 — but the U.S. was lagging behind other developed countries in health outcomes long before the pandemic hit.

Fast facts

Read the full report here.

Expert analysis

Bob Anderson, chief of the CDC’s mortality statistics branch, says that while a large number of deaths are “directly attributable” to COVID-19, many are also indirectly related.

For example, he notes that the virus can cause circulatory complications and therefore could be behind some of the deaths from things like strokes. And he says drug overdose deaths had started to climb at the end of 2019, with the increase getting steeper the following year. Anderson says the pandemic likely had an impact, even if it wasn’t the sole driver of that climb.

José Manuel Aburto, a demographer at the University of Oxford, found that among 29 developed countries, American males experienced the biggest drop in life expectancy last year.

“Given the impact of the pandemic specifically in the U.S., it is not surprising that we see this drop in life expectancy,” he said. “What I do find very surprising is the magnitude of the loss.”

Dr. Steven Woolf, the director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University, notes that the U.S. has historically had worse health outcomes than other rich countries, in large part because of socioeconomic disparities and lack of access to care.

Those factors have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and reflected in its disproportionate impact on underprivileged communities, he explains.

Woolf notes that while this is a longer-term problem to fix, the pandemic is still raging. In the short term, he says, we can bring down deaths by following public health guidelines.


A version of this story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.

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