Science & Technology

Covid-19: Coronavirus was the third leading cause of death in the US in 2020


In the first year of the pandemic, covid-19 became one of the leading causes of death in the US. The country also had the biggest drop in life expectancy than any other



Health



22 December 2021

In America: Remember

In America: Remember, an art installation in Washington, DC, memorialising those who have died in the covid-19 pandemic

More than 3 million deaths were recorded in the US in 2020 – an increase of 500,000 from 2019. The coronavirus was directly responsible for more than 350,000 lives lost there in 2020, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“At this point in the pandemic, it’s clear that these numbers are pretty accurate,” says Steven Woolf at Virginia Commonwealth University. This is the largest increase in deaths in the US since the second world war, he says.

Many of the excess deaths not related to covid-19 will also have been caused by the pandemic, Woolf says. These could have been due to missed operations, healthcare staff shortages and rises in mental ill health, he says.

Life expectancy in the US also fell for both men and women in 2020. The average life expectancy for women fell from 81.4 years in 2019 to 79.9 years in 2020. For men it fell from 76.3 years in 2019 to 74.2 years in 2020.

“Based on our research, the US has faced the largest drop in life expectancy due to covid-19 than any other country in the world,” Woolf says. He says this is probably due to the country’s disjointed covid-19 response, with each state determining its own policies for how to deal with the coronavirus. “We had 50 different response plans, each depending on the governor of the state and their politics.”

“A lot of these deaths were preventable,” says Woolf. “At the beginning of this year I was hopeful that with the vaccine there’d be fewer deaths in 2021… but now with the rise of the delta and omicron variants I’m not sure.”

Heart disease was the leading cause of death in the US in 2020, according to the CDC report, accounting for around 168 deaths per 100,000 people. Cancer was the second leading cause of death with 144 deaths per 100,000 people. They were the two biggest killers in 2019 as well.

“I’m not surprised by these findings,” says Shripad Tuljapurkar at Stanford University in California. “About 77 per cent of the increase in deaths from 2019 to 2020 was due to covid-19 and given that the virus affects mostly those older than 55, this drop in life expectancy is no surprise.”

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