Excess Deaths Jump 23% in US in 2020, Mostly Because of COVID-19

Damian McNamara

April 02, 2021

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

The United States saw nearly 23% more deaths than expected during the first 9 months of the pandemic, and almost three-quarters of those deaths involved COVID-19.

For comparison, the death rate increased by 2.5% or less annually in recent years.

At the same time, rates of deaths from heart disease, Alzheimer's disease or dementia, and diabetes also increased from March 1, 2020, to January 2, 2021, especially during COVID-19 surges.

"Excess deaths surged in the east in April, followed by extended summer and early winter surges concentrated in southern and western states, respectively. Many of these states weakly embraced, or discouraged, pandemic control measures and lifted restrictions earlier than other states," lead author Steven H. Woolf, MD, MPH, from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in Richmond, and colleagues wrote in a Research Letter published online April 2, 2021, in JAMA.

COVID-19 mortality included all deaths for which it was cited as an underlying or contributing cause in records from the District of Columbia and 49 states. North Carolina was excluded for insufficient data.

More Than Half a Million Excess Deaths

Between March 1, 2020, and January 2, 2021, the United States experienced 2,801,439 deaths, or 522,368 excess deaths. A total 72.4% of these events were attributed to COVID-19.

Not all racial and ethnic groups were equally represented. For example, the rate of excess deaths was higher among non-Hispanic Black populations, at 208.4 deaths per 100,000. Non-Hispanic White populations experienced 157 deaths per 100,000, and Hispanic populations experienced 139.8 deaths per 100,000.

Further, non-Hispanic Black individuals accounted for 16.9% of the excess deaths but only 12.5% of the US population, which reflects "racial disparities in COVID-19 mortality," the authors note.

Not adjusting for population aging is a potential limitation, as was reliance on provisional data and the likelihood that some death certificates were inaccurate.

In February, Anthony Fauci, MD, chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, stated that political divisions likely played a role in the 500,000-plus COVID-19-related deaths in the United States. 

Then a report came out on March 26 indicating that a different US response to the pandemic could have avoided almost 400,000 COVID-19 deaths. In addition, an April 1 study in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report revealed that COVID-19 is now the third leading cause of death in the United States, after heart disease and cancer.

"Massive" Excessive Mortality

"There is no more visible or alarming manifestation of the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic than the deaths it has caused. In this issue of JAMA, Woolf and colleagues provide updated analyses that demonstrate that the excess mortality in the US between March 1, 2020, and January 2, 2021, has been massive," Alan Garber, MD, PhD, wrote in an accompanying Editorial.

"It seems likely that COVID-19 will have contributed to nearly as many deaths in the US as the great influenza pandemic of 1918, and more than in any influenza outbreak in the US since then," added Garber, provost of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

This study of excess mortality illustrates what is at stake, he added. "Despite the scientific, medical and public health progress of recent decades, the loss of life attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic exceeds the mortality of major wars. No nation should squander this opportunity to do what it takes to prepare for the next one."

Woolf and Garber disclosed no relevant financial relationships. The National Institutes of Health supported the research through its National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences and the National Institute on Aging.

Damian McNamara is a staff journalist based in Miami. He covers a wide range of medical specialties, including infectious diseases, gastroenterology, and critical care. Follow Damian on Twitter: @MedReporter.

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