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

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.
Spencer Platt
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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

  • The overall mortality rate of the U.S. went up by nearly 17% last year.
  • That corresponds to a drop in life expectancy of 1.8 years.
  • All age groups 15 and older saw a rise in deaths last year.
  • Ten percent of all deaths were due to COVID-19, making it the third largest cause of death in the country.
  • There was also a rise in deaths from other causes, like heart disease, stroke and unintentional injuries like drug overdoses.
  • The rise in deaths were significantly higher for Hispanic and Black populations compared to white people.
  • The drop in U.S. life expectancy is the largest single-year decrease in more than 75 years.
  • 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.

    Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.
    Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.