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2020 wasn't 'just a random bad year,' health experts say: COVID-19 made it one of the deadliest in US history

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 1/22/2021 Adrianna Rodriguez, USA TODAY
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Even as U.S. deaths from COVID-19 surpassed 400,000 this week, some Americans dispute the accuracy of the death toll, contending it is exaggerated.

Final figures aren't yet in, but preliminary numbers show 2020 is on track to become the deadliest year in U.S. history, with more than 3.2 million total deaths – about 400,000 more than 2019 – a sharp increase that public health experts attribute to COVID-19 and aligns with reported deaths from the disease. 

A man places flags at the National World War I Museum and Memorial Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Kansas City, Mo. The 1,665 flags represent the area residents who died in the coronavirus pandemic and the display was part of a national memorial to lives lost to COVID-19. © Charlie Riedel, AP A man places flags at the National World War I Museum and Memorial Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Kansas City, Mo. The 1,665 flags represent the area residents who died in the coronavirus pandemic and the display was part of a national memorial to lives lost to COVID-19.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 2,835,533 U.S. deaths in 2019. Before the pandemic, models projected a slightly higher number, about 2.9 million deaths, for 2020, said Dr. Jeremy Faust, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

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It’s not a coincidence, he said, that the 400,000 excess deaths closely resemble the number of coronavirus deaths in the U.S., which reached 401,796 as of Wednesday, according to Johns Hopkins data.

“That is not a seasonal change or just a random bad year," Faust said. "That is what every person who can correctly attest to these numbers can plainly see is a historic increase in excess mortality. If we put that together with the number of coronavirus deaths, it’s game, set, match.”

Excess deaths are defined as "the difference between the observed numbers of deaths in specific time periods and expected numbers of deaths in the same time periods."

The CDC predicts excess deaths since Feb. 1 may be between 350,000 and 469,000. Faust says some models project the number may be closer to 430,000.

Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond estimate excess deaths may be up to 50% higher than publicly reported.

By examining death certificates, they found more than 150,000 deaths were officially attributed to COVID-19 in March to July, but determined that nearly 75,000 additional deaths were indirectly caused by the pandemic, according to a study published in October in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA.

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With that logic, excess deaths easily may be higher than 500,000 or approaching 600,000, said Dr. Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

“That’s based on where we are right now, and unfortunately, we’re seeing the numbers climbing, so the concern is obviously that we’re going to end up with more excess deaths than that,” he said.

Deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, are not the sole cause of 2020's increase, as the country also has seen more overdoses, partly due to the isolation brought on by the pandemic.

According to the CDC, there were more than 81,000 overdose deaths in the 12 months that ended in May, marking the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a yearlong period. Overdose data for all of 2020 is not yet available.

'Blood on his hands': As US surpasses 400K COVID deaths, experts blame Trump administration for a 'preventable' loss of life

Faust said the country continues to see a historic increase in excess deaths among the young adult population, specifically ages 25 to 44.

A CDC study found deaths in that age group from all causes increased 26.5% from January to October, the largest average percentage change among all age groups. Faust said, according to modeling, the nation saw 7,300 excess deaths in this population from August to the end of November.

“Which, again, tells us that the pandemic and its effects are not just limited to the elderly,” he said. 

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine predicted in October that the Trump administration’s pandemic approach could lead to 511,373 COVID-19 deaths by Feb. 28. 

Dr. Ali Mokdad, professor of health metrics sciences at IHME and chief strategy officer for population health at the University of Washington, said the coronavirus pandemic has also led to an increase in smoking, drinking, domestic violence, mental health conditions, delayed medical care and more.

“All of these conditions contribute to health in the United States that has in many ways set us back,” he said. “And we haven’t seen the end of it.”

Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT. 

Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2020 wasn't 'just a random bad year,' health experts say: COVID-19 made it one of the deadliest in US history

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