CDC Ranks COVID-19 as Third Leading Cause of Death in 2020

coronavirus deaths

Several new reports, two by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), describe just how severely COVID-19 has affected mortality figures in the U.S., and around the world, as well as ripple effects that extended to other forms of death.

COVID-19 3rd Leading Cause of Death in 2020

Two new reports published by the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report included some startling results. It’s probably not completely surprising that COVID-19 ranked as one of the highest causes of death in 2020, hitting third with 345,323 deaths behind cancer (598,932) and heart disease (690,882). More surprising was the impact on communities of color.

In a White House COVID-19 Response Team briefing yesterday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said that COVID-19-related deaths were higher among American Indian and Alaskan Natives, Hispanics, Blacks and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders than white persons, adding that “among nearly all of these ethnic and racial minority groups, the COVID-19 related deaths were more than double the death rate of non-Hispanic white persons.”

Another point that came out was that the age-adjusted death rate increased by 15.9% in 2020, which was the first increase in three years. In 2019, the age-adjusted rate was 715.2 deaths per 100,000 population, and in 2020 it was 828.7 deaths per 100,000.

Despite the vaccine rollout, the 7-day average of new cases across the country is slightly under 62,000 cases per day, which is a 12% increase from the previous 7-day period. Hospitalizations from COVID-19 have also increased to about 4,900 admissions daily, with the 7-day average of deaths just over 900 per day.

Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist at New York University who served as a COVID-19 advisor on the Biden transition team, told NPR’s Morning Edition that she is still concerned about the rate of new infections, even with the vaccine rollout. She compared vaccines to a raincoat and umbrella, which offer protection during a rainstorm but not in a hurricane.

“And we’re really still in a COVID hurricane,” Gounder said.

Stillbirths Increased During Pandemic

One of the ripple effects of the pandemic has been complications among pregnant women globally, including a rise in stillbirths. The study also found higher rates of maternal deaths and depression in 2020. The study came out of St. George’s University of London.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on health care systems around the world,” said lead author Asma Khalil. “Disruption to services, nationwide lockdowns, and fear of attending health care facilities mean that the adverse effects of COVID-19 are expected to have health consequences that extend beyond the deaths and disease caused by the virus itself.”

Khalil’s group reviewed 40 studies that included data on 6 million pregnancies in 17 countries. They found a 28% increase in the odds of stillbirth, defined as the loss of the fetus after 20 weeks. The risk of death during pregnancy or childbirth increased by about 33%. There was an almost sixfold increase in surgery for ectopic pregnancies, and a significant increase in postpartum depression and anxiety.

Suicides Decreased in 2020

According to preliminary data from the CDC reports, they did find a decrease in suicides. From 2019 to 2020, suicide deaths dropped by about 5.6%, from 47,511 5o 44,834, according to the CDC. It was the third consecutive year of decline. This is a bit unexpected, because many experts had expressed worry that long-term isolation and economic stresses would have a bigger negative effect on suicide rates and mental health in general.

“In terms of the rankings, it’s the eleventh leading cause of death, so it’s still very important that we pay attention to that,” said Farida Ahmad, health scientist at the National Center for Health Statistics. “Even if numbers are lower in 2020, it doesn’t mean the issue has gone away or it’s no longer a problem.”

U.S. Deaths Overall in 2020 Highest Ever, More than 3.3 Million

Another takeaway from the CDC reports was that total U.S. deaths in 2020 blasted past 3.3 million, the highest annual death toll recorded. About 375,000 were directly related to COVID-19—the total figure is past 550,000 now. The U.S. death toll typically increases each year, but the 2020 rate was an increase of almost 16% compared to 2019, the largest one-year jump since 1918, which was affected by the Spanish Flu pandemic and deaths of soldiers in World War I. 1918 deaths were up 46% compared with 1917.

In a separate report, the CDC looked at criticisms expressed about deaths misattributed to COVID-19, closely analyzing death certificates. They found that most death certificates that listed COVID-19 also described other contributing factors, including diabetes and pneumonia. Approximately 5% of death certificates only listed COVID-19, which was most common when the individual died at home. The agency said the review confirmed the accuracy of the death count for COVID-19.

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