Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the biggest drop in life expectancy in the US since World War II (“Provisional Life Expectancy Estimates for 2020,” Vital Statistics Rapid Release, Report No. 015, July, 2021). Most of the decline was due to COVID deaths, although the opioid epidemic has also played a role. At the time of this writing, 609,000 Americans have died since the pandemic began. That’s more than twice the number of US military casualties during the second World War.
How Bad Was It?
Overall, life expectancy was 78.8 years in 2019, dropping to 77.3 years in 2020. That may not seem like much, but on a population level losing a year and a half so quickly is horrifying. Hispanic and African-American communities were especially hard-hit. Hispanic men lost nearly 4 years of life expectancy last year. During WWII life expectancy went down by 2.9 years between 1942 and 1943.
Here is what the National Center for Health Statistics concluded about 2020:
“U.S. life expectancy at birth for 2020, based on nearly final data, was 77.3 years, the lowest it has been since 2003. Male life expectancy (74.5) also declined to a level not seen since 2003, while female life expectancy (80.2) returned to the lowest level since 2005.”
“Mortality due to COVID-19 had, by far, the single greatest effect on the decline in life expectancy at birth between 2019 and 2020, overall, among men and women, and for the three race and Hispanic-origin groups shown in this report.”
What About COVID Deaths in 2021?
Please note that the mortality data from the number crunchers at the CDC are only from 2020. That’s because it takes time to gather and analyze such information. It is estimated that there were about 375,000 COVID deaths in the US during 2020. But we didn’t hit the worst of the pandemic until January of 2021.
During the first half of this year we have added over 230,000 COVID deaths. While those numbers were dropping dramatically between February and April, they are starting to rise again thanks to the Delta variant.
Why Are COVID Deaths Debatable?
Why do so many people doubt the stats on COVID deaths? You would think that such information would be pretty straightforward. The CDC actually provides a very specific “Guidance for Certifying Deaths Due to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).” Many visitors to this website remain skeptical of the data collection.
We remain mystified by many of the comments posted in response to our articles. We reported on a JAMA (Oct. 12, 2020) study that indicated 20% more deaths than usual since the pandemic began.
The biostatisticians and epidemiologists who wrote this research letter concluded:
“Although total US death counts are remarkably consistent from year to year, US deaths increased by 20% during March-July 2020. COVID-19 was a documented cause of only 67% of these excess deaths.”
The point is, deaths don’t change very much from year to year unless there is something really dramatic going on. You may wish to look at this revealing article on “Mortality in the United States: Past, Present, and Future” (PennWharton Budget Model, June 27, 2016). You will see that starting around 1900 there has been a steady trend: 1) death rate has decreased and 2) life expectancy has increased.
What Happened in 1918?
There was a dramatic reversal in 1918. What happened? You nailed it. The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919!
There was a smaller blip on the mortality radar screen in 1936-1937. We wondered what happened to cause an increase in mortality and a decrease in life expectancy.
“Special attention is called to a year such as 1936 when, in certain regions among the civilian population, influenza reached the level of sharp epidemics during the early months; then in December the peak of the 1936-37 pandemic spread was rapidly approached. The first was influenza B, the second influenza A. The latter was worldwide and typically influenzal. Moreover, it was identified etiologically in many parts of the world.”
Since then, though, the trend has been surprisingly steady towards lower mortality. So, for roughly 100 years the number of annual deaths was gradually going down as life expectancy increased. There were some ups and downs during the Great Depression but the two biggest blips were due to viral infections. Here is a link to the data so you can see the curves for yourself.
That clearly changed in 2020. When stats are eventually compiled for 2020 and 2021, we are likely to see another rise in mortality and a decrease in life expectancy during that time period. Why won’t Americans accept this information?
Reader Response to the JAMA Data on COVID Deaths:
Here is a link to our article:
Why Are Deaths From COVID So Controversial?
How many people have died from SARS-CoV-2? Many people don’t believe it’s that many. New data suggests deaths from COVID are even higher.
Readers Remain Skeptical About COVID Deaths:
We will not refute any of the statements made by readers. We just want to give you a sense of what some people saying in response to the data published in JAMA.
Sandy says the numbers are being manipulated:
“I personally know of at least 10 deaths that were counted as COVID deaths but were actually such things as a motorcycle accident or car wreck death. Several individuals had to fight with the authorities to change the reason for death because their parents tested negative for the disease and died from natural causes.
“In my opinion, much of the disbelief stems from cases like these. I also know several people who work in the medical system who tell me that we are not being told the truth about MANY things (such as the # of hospital beds available).
“The death rate is STILL (last I checked) less than 1% and that is a more viable figure to focus on, in my opinion. I know of many who had mild cases, have no lingering side effects and have moved on with their lives. More is known now so the death rate is lower than it was in the beginning.”
David and Jennifer suggest that the increase in COVID deaths might be caused by stress:
“This doesn’t appear to take into account the increased mortality that stress alone induces. I don’t know how other nations compare to the level of political stress that has impacted the USA this year but I would be willing to bet that more of us have dealt directly with the effects of that form of stress than have dealt directly with the COVID-19 virus. Perhaps this can help explain the increased number of deaths in the U.S. this year.”
COVID Deaths from the CDC:
“As of October 15, 216,025 deaths from coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) have been reported in the United States; however, this number might underestimate the total impact of the pandemic on mortality. Measures of excess deaths have been used to estimate the impact of public health pandemics or disasters, particularly when there are questions about under ascertainment of deaths directly attributable to a given event or cause. Excess deaths are defined as the number of persons who have died from all causes, in excess of the expected number of deaths for a given place and time. This report describes trends and demographic patterns in excess deaths during January 26–October 3, 2020.”
According to the CDC:
“Overall, an estimated 299,028 excess deaths have occurred in the United States from late January through October 3, 2020, with two thirds of these attributed to COVID-19.”
“Estimates of excess deaths can provide a comprehensive account of mortality related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including deaths that are directly or indirectly attributable to COVID-19. Estimates of the numbers of deaths directly attributable to COVID-19 might be limited by factors such as the availability and use of diagnostic testing (including postmortem testing) and the accurate and complete reporting of cause of death information on the death certificate. Excess death analyses are not subject to these limitations because they examine historical trends in all-cause mortality to determine the degree to which observed numbers of deaths differ from historical norms.”
Although more excess deaths have occurred among older age groups, the biggest increases relative to usual times were among young adults 25 to 44 and people of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity. Now that the Delta variant is spreading rapidly through all states and striking younger people, those words are more true today than when they were written several months ago.
Here is an article in the BMJ (June 24, 2021) describing “Life expectancy in the wake of COVID-19).”
“In 2020, covid-19 became the third leading cause of death in the United States1 and was thus expected to substantially lower life expectancy for that year. The US had more deaths from covid-19 than any other country in the world and among the highest per capita mortality rates.”
“The mortality outcomes examined in this study, in the research literature, and in the daily news represent only part of the burden of covid-19; for every death, a larger number of infected individuals experience acute illness, and many face long term health and life complications. Whether some of these long term complications will affect how quickly life expectancy in the US will rebound in the coming years is unclear. Morbidity and mortality during the pandemic have wider effects on families, neighborhoods, and communities. One study estimated that each death leaves behind an average of nine bereaved family members.”
What is your perspective on more than 600,000 COVID deaths? Do you think the SARS-CoV-2 virus contributed to the dramatic drop in life expectancy, or do you think the excess deaths are due to other causes? What might those be?
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