The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The coronavirus pandemic has caused nearly 300,000 more deaths than expected in a typical year

As daily coronavirus death tolls continue to increase in the U.S., here a few factors explaining the numbers. (Video: The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

The coronavirus pandemic has left about 299,000 more people dead in the United States than would be expected in a typical year, two-thirds of them from covid-19 and the rest from other causes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Tuesday.

The CDC said the novel coronavirus, which causes covid-19, has taken a disproportionate toll on Latinos and Blacks, as previous analyses have noted. But the CDC also found, surprisingly, that it has struck 25- to 44-year-olds very hard: Their “excess death” rate is up 26.5 percent over previous years, the largest change for any age group.

It is not clear whether that spike is caused by the shift in covid-19 deaths toward younger people between May and August or deaths from other causes, the CDC said.

The report comes with just two weeks left in a presidential campaign whose central issue is President Trump’s handling of the pandemic. Trump has sought at every turn, including in remarks Monday, to minimize the virus’s impact, despite a covid-19 death toll that is likely to be the third-leading cause of mortality in the United States this year, behind heart disease and cancer. That stance has proved to be the president’s enduring weakness as the election looms Nov. 3.

His Democratic opponent, former vice president Joe Biden, has made his plans to tackle the pandemic the major focus of his bid to capture the White House.

“The number of people dying from this pandemic is higher than we think,” said Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University, who has conducted independent analyses of excess mortality. “This study shows it. Others have, as well.”

The United States is in the midst of another sharp increase in coronavirus infections, this one centered in the upper Midwest and Plains states. The seven-day rolling average of cases, considered the most accurate barometer, is near 60,000 per day. At least 220,000 people have died of covid-19 so far, according to data kept by The Washington Post.

The new CDC data covers Feb. 1 to Oct. 3. Woolf said the total is likely to reach 400,000 by the end of the year. The numbers were assembled by the National Center for Health Statistics, a unit of the CDC.

Outside analyses, including some by The Washington Post and researchers at Yale University, have found two main causes for excess deaths. Many probably were the result of covid-19, although they were not recorded that way on death certificates. Others are probably the result of deaths at home or in nursing homes from heart attacks, diabetes, strokes and Alzheimer’s disease, among people afraid to seek care in hospitals or unable to get it.

Overall, the CDC found that “excess deaths have occurred every week since March, 2020,” with a peak during the week of April 11 and another during the week ending Aug. 8. Those dates roughly coincide with the virus’s surge into the New York metro area near the start of the outbreak and a second major rise across the Sun Belt when many states reopened too soon in an effort to revive flagging economies.

All told, an estimated 299,028 more people died than would be expected in a typical year, which was defined as the average annual deaths from 2015 to 2019, the CDC reported. It said 198,081 of those fatalities were caused by covid-19, with the remainder attributable to other causes.

While the virus continues to prey mainly on older people and, disproportionately, African Americans and Latinos, the rate of excess mortality among 25- to 44-year-olds was less expected. Among 45- to 64-year-olds the increase was 14.4 percent, and among 65- to 74-year-olds it was 24.1 percent.

The unexpectedly high mortality rates for adults in the prime of their lives, from 25 to 65, has been a source of ongoing concern for public health experts and others in recent years, especially since a spike in deaths from drugs, alcohol and suicide was recognized.

Lauren M. Rossen, a senior health statistician at the National Center for Health Statistics and lead author of Tuesday’s report, said the death rate in the young-adult age group “was trending up before the pandemic.” But it’s still not clear why excess deaths for 25- to 44-year-olds rose so quickly.

“I don’t think we know, specifically, the answer to that question yet,” Rossen said.

In part, the large change reflects the general good health and low death rate among young adults, said Jeremy S. Faust, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston who studies excess deaths. A sudden surge in deaths from covid-19 would change the percentages markedly. According to the CDC, 5,707 people in the 25-to-44-year-old age group have succumbed to covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic in the United States.

“It’s scary because on one hand young people still don’t die [from covid-19] very often,” he said. “But on the other hand, it’s a public health crisis.”

Among racial groups, the majority of people killed by covid-19 are White. But for people of color, and especially Latinos, the new report emphasizes just how big a difference the pandemic has made in mortality.

For Whites, that means an excess death rate of 11.9 percent over a normal year. For Latinos, it is 53.6 percent, for Blacks 32.9 percent and for Asians 36.6 percent.

Possible explanations for the higher rates include underlying health conditions that may make people of color more vulnerable to covid-19 and jobs as essential workers that put more Blacks and Latinos in the path of the virus. But experts do not have a solid explanation for the data.