COVID-19 Ranks as Leading Cause of Death in US

Carolyn Crist

December 17, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

COVID-19 became a leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2020, particularly for people over age 35, according to a new report published in JAMA on Thursday.

Adults over age 45 were more likely to die from COVID-19 than car crashes, respiratory diseases, drug overdoses, and suicide. And those over age 55 faced even higher rates of dying due to the coronavirus.

"The current exponential increase in COVID-19 is reaching a calamitous scale in the U.S.," the authors wrote. "Putting these numbers in perspective may be difficult."

Population health researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University put COVID-19 deaths into context by comparing this year's numbers to the leading causes of death for March through October 2018, sorting by age.

By October 2020, COVID-19 had become the third leading cause of death overall for those between the ages of 45 and 84, following after heart disease and cancer. For those over age 85, COVID-19 was the second leading cause of death, surpassing cancer and following behind heart disease.

For people ages 35-44, COVID-19 surpassed car crashes and respiratory diseases and was slightly lower than suicide, heart disease, and cancer. For those under age 35, drug overdoses, suicide, and car crashes remained the leading causes of death.

Importantly, the authors wrote, death rates for the two leading causes — heart disease and cancer — are about 1,700 and 1,600 per day, respectively. COVID-19 deaths have surpassed these numbers individually throughout December and, on Wednesday, beat them combined. More than 3,400 deaths were reported, according to the COVID Tracking Project, marking an all-time high that continues to increase. Hospitalizations were also at a new high, with more than 113,000 COVID-19 patients in hospitals across the country, and another 232,000 new cases were reported.

"With COVID-19 mortality rates now exceeding these thresholds, this infectious disease has become deadlier than heart disease and cancer," the authors wrote. "Its lethality may increase further as transmission increases with holiday travel and gatherings and with the intensified indoor exposure that winter brings."

The reported number of COVID-19 deaths is likely a 20% underestimate, they wrote, due to delays in reporting and an increase in non-COVID-19 deaths that were undetected and untreated because of pandemic-related disruptions. Since the coronavirus is communicable and spreads easily, COVID-19 deaths are particularly unique and worrying, they said.

"Individuals who die from homicide or cancer do not transmit the risk of morbidity and mortality to those nearby," they wrote. "Every COVID-19 death signals the possibility of more deaths among close contacts."

The fall surge in cases and deaths is widespread nationally, as compared to the spring, with hot spots on both coasts and in rural areas, according to an accompanying editorial in JAMA from public health researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. People of color have faced twice the death rate as well, with one in 875 Black people and one in 925 Indigenous people dying from COVID-19, as compared with one in 1,625 white people.

"The year 2020 ends with COVID-19 massively surging, as it was in the spring, to be the leading cause of death," they wrote. "The accelerating numbers of deaths fall far short of fully capturing each devastating human story: Every death represents untold loss for countless families."

Vaccines offer hope, they said, but won't prevent the upcoming increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths this winter. In 2021, containing the pandemic will require national coordination, resources to help overwhelmed health care workers, new support for state and local public health officials, a stimulus package for schools and businesses, and financial aid for people on the brink of eviction. The country needs federal coordination of testing, contact tracing, personal protective equipment, travel precautions, and a face mask mandate, they wrote.

"Ending this crisis will require not only further advances in treatment but also unprecedented commitment to all aspects of prevention, vaccination, and public health," they wrote. "Only by doing so can future years see this illness revert back to the unfamiliar and unknown condition it once was."


JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association: "COVID-19 as the Leading Cause of Death in the United States," "Deaths from COVID-19."

COVID Tracking Project: "Our Data."