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Excess deaths increased by more than 20 percent in 2020, study finds

Experts say that COVID-19 wasn’t the only factor affecting the death rate over the last year

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Photo (c) Anton Petrus - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University identified a large uptick in the excess death rate in 2020. 

According to their findings, the excess death rate surged by more than 20 percent over the previous year. While COVID-19 was primarily to blame for this, the researchers say there were also other factors at play. 

“This country has experienced profound loss of life due to the pandemic and its consequences, especially in communities of color,” said researcher Dr. Peter Buckley. “While we must remain vigilant with social distancing and mask-wearing behaviors for the duration of this pandemic, we must also make efforts to ensure the equitable distribution of care if we are to reduce the likelihood of further loss of life.” 

Analyzing the death rate

The researchers analyzed the death rate between the start of 2020 and the start of 2021 to determine how excessive deaths were affected by the pandemic and other factors. 

Ultimately, the excessive death rate rose by nearly 23 percent over the last year; the researchers explained that in a typical year, excessive deaths hover between one to two percent. COVID-19 was responsible for the majority of excess deaths in 2020, but the study also found surges in deaths from conditions like diabetes and heart disease. 

“COVID-19 accounted for roughly 72 percent of the excess deaths we’re calculating, and that’s similar to what our earlier studies showed,” said researcher Dr. Steven Woolf. “There is a sizable gap between the number of publicly reported COVID-19 deaths and the sum total of excess deaths the country has actually experienced.” 

What communities were at the highest risk

In looking at the death rate around the country, the researchers found that certain areas and groups of people were at a higher risk of death than others. States in the northeast were hit the hardest during the early months of the pandemic, and states in the southern part of the country experienced spikes in the death rate after social distancing guidelines began to lighten up. 

“They said they were opening early to rescue the economy,” Dr. Woolf said. “The tragedy is that policy not only cost more lives, but actually hurt their economy by extending the length of the pandemic. One of the big lessons our nation must learn from COVID-19 is that our health and our economy are tied together. You can’t really rescue one without the other.” 

Similarly, the researchers found that the excess death rate disproportionately impacted Black consumers more so than white consumers. 

“This, of course, is consistent with the evidence about COVID-19 but also indicates that excess deaths from some conditions other than COVID-19 are also occurring at higher rates in the African American population,” Dr. Woolf said. 

Moving forward, the researchers hope that consumers and health care providers understand the gravity of these findings. They say the impact of the pandemic may continue to be felt in the months to come. 

“Once again, [states] are lifting restrictions, opening businesses back up, and now seeing the COVID-19 variants spread through their population,” Dr. Woolf said. “To prevent more excess deaths, we need to hold our horses and maintain the public health restrictions that we have in place so the vaccine can do its work and get the numbers under control.” 

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