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COVID Drove 23% Spike in U.S. Deaths In 2020

FRIDAY, April 2, 2021 -- COVID-19 was the major cause of a nearly 23% increase in U.S. deaths during the last 10 months of 2020.

Researchers noted that the rate of excess deaths in the United States -- those above the number that would be expected based on averages from the previous five years -- tends to be consistent at about 1% to 2% a year.

But between March 1, 2020 and Jan. 2, 2021, excess deaths rose 22.9% to 522,368. More than 7 in 10 were attributed to COVID-19.

COVID also may have played a role in some of the other 28% of excess deaths during that time, even if it wasn't listed on death certificates, researchers said.

Such deaths could have been due to disruptions in health care caused by the pandemic, said study lead author Dr. Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University.

For example, people may have died because they didn't seek or get adequate care in an emergency such as a heart attack; had fatal complications from a chronic disease such as diabetes, or had a mental health crisis that resulted in suicide or drug overdose.

"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," Woolf said in a university news release.

The surge in excess deaths was especially high among Black Americans. They make up 12.5% of the U.S. population, but accounted for 16.9% of the excess deaths in the last 10 months of 2020. The excess death rate among Black people was higher than rates among white people or Hispanics.

Increases in excess deaths varied across regions, and lasted longer in states that lifted pandemic restrictions early and had COVID surges later in the year, according to the findings.

"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 said. "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."

The 10 states with the highest per capita rate of excess deaths were Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Arizona, Alabama, Louisiana, South Dakota, New Mexico, North Dakota and Ohio.

Woolf predicted the consequences of the pandemic would be felt for years to come. For example, cancer death rates may rise if the pandemic forced people to delay screening or chemotherapy.

The study was published April 2 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

© 2021 HealthDay. All rights reserved.

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