NEW YORK (AP) – This is the most lethal year in the history of the United States, with deaths expected at 3 million for the first time – mainly due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Final mortality data for this year will not be available for months. But preliminary figures suggest the United States is on track to see more than 3.2 million deaths this year, or at least 400,000 more than in 2019.
Deaths in the USA increase in most years, so some annual increase in deaths is expected. But the 2020 numbers represent a jump of about 15% and could increase when all of this month’s deaths are counted.
That would mark the biggest percentage jump in a single year since 1918, when tens of thousands of American soldiers died in World War I and hundreds of thousands of Americans died in a flu pandemic. Deaths increased by 46% that year, compared to 1917.
COVID-19 killed more than 318,000 Americans and counting. Before it happened, there was reason to be hopeful about mortality trends in the United States.
The country’s overall mortality rate dropped slightly in 2019, due to the reduction in deaths from heart disease and cancer. And life expectancy has increased – in several weeks – for the second consecutive year, according to data from the death certificate released on Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But life expectancy in 2020 could end up falling by up to three full years, said Robert Anderson of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC accounted for 2,854,838 deaths in the U.S. last year, or nearly 16,000 more than 2018. That’s pretty good news: deaths generally increase by about 20,000 to 50,000 each year, mainly due to aging and growth of the country’s population.
In fact, the age-adjusted mortality rate fell by about 1% in 2019, and life expectancy increased by about six weeks to 78.8 years, the CDC reported.
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“In fact, it has been a very good year for mortality, the way things are going,” said Anderson, who oversees CDC mortality statistics.
The coronavirus epidemic in the United States was a major cause of death this year, both directly and indirectly.
The virus was first identified in China last year, and the first cases in the United States were reported this year. But it has become the third leading cause of death, behind only heart disease and cancer. At certain times this year, COVID-19 was the number one killer.
But some other types of deaths have also increased.
An explosion of pneumonia cases earlier this year may have been deaths from COVID-19 that were simply not recognized as such at the beginning of the epidemic. But there were also an unexpected number of deaths from certain types of heart and circulatory disease, diabetes and dementia, said Anderson.
Many of them may also be related to COVID. The virus may have weakened patients who are already struggling with these conditions, or it may have diminished the care they were receiving, he said.
At the beginning of the epidemic, some were optimistic that car accident deaths would decline as people stopped commuting or driving to social events. Data on this has not yet been released, but anecdotal reports suggest that there has been no such decline.
Suicide deaths fell in 2019 compared to 2018, but early information suggests that they did not continue to fall this year, said Anderson and others.
Drug overdose deaths, in turn, have worsened greatly.
Even before the coronavirus arrived, the United States was in the midst of the deadliest drug overdose epidemic in its history.
2020 data are not yet available. But last week the CDC reported more than 81,000 drug overdose deaths in the 12 months ending in May, making it the highest number on record in a year.
Experts believe that interrupting the pandemic in face-to-face treatment and recovery services may have been a factor. People are also more likely to take drugs alone – without the benefit of a friend or family member who can call 911 or administer overdose reversal medications.
But perhaps a bigger factor is the drugs themselves: COVID-19 has caused supply problems for traffickers, so they are increasingly mixing cheap and deadly fentanyl into heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, experts said.
“I don’t suspect that there are a lot of new people who suddenly started using drugs because of COVID. In fact, I think the supply of people who are already using drugs is more contaminated, ”said Shannon Monnat, a researcher at Syracuse University who studies drug overdose trends.
The Associated Press Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.