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Pandemic cut U.S. life expectancy by a year during the first half of 2020

Isabel Jacobo, 80, second from right, takes a cross from Jose Hinojos during her husband’s funeral service at Calvary Cemetery and Mortuary in Los Angeles on Jan. 13.
Isabel Jacobo, 80, second from right, takes a cross from Jose Hinojos during her husband’s funeral service at Calvary Cemetery and Mortuary in Los Angeles on Jan. 13. (Philip Cheung for The Washington Post)

Life expectancy in the United States fell by a full year during the first half of 2020, a staggering decline that reflects the toll of the covid-19 pandemic as well as a rise in deaths from drug overdoses, heart attacks and diseases that accompanied the outbreak, according to government data released Thursday.

The last time life expectancy at birth dropped more dramatically was during World War II. Americans can now expect to live as long as they did in 2006, according to the provisional data released by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Black and Latino Americans were hit harder than Whites, reflecting the racial disparities of the pandemic, according to the new analysis. Black Americans lost 2.7 years of life expectancy, and Latinos lost 1.9. White life expectancy fell 0.8 years.

Health experts expect coronavirus to become endemic, existing permanently in the population. This is due to human behavior continuing to drive transmission. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post, Photo: Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

“It’s pretty jolting,” said Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University, who is compiling the same data for all of 2020. “This is a huge impact.”

Life expectancy at birth, considered a reliable barometer of a nation’s health, has risen steadily in the United States since the middle of the 20th century, with small annual decreases in recent years caused mainly by “deaths of despair” — drug overdoses, alcoholism and suicide. Flat and modestly declining life expectancy from 2015 to 2017 caused considerable concern among public health experts after decades of progress against heart disease, cancer and other maladies.

In 2019, life expectancy ticked back up as the number of fatal drug overdoses dropped slightly for the first time in 28 years.

The only good news in the new report is that life expectancy typically bounces back quickly, because of the way it is calculated. Experts said that when the United States quells the pandemic, they expect this to occur.

Overall, the NCHS data shows, life expectancy at birth for the entire U.S. population in the first half of 2020 was 77.8 years. For Black Americans, it was 72, for Latinos 79.9, and for Whites 78. As has long been the case, women could expect to live longer — 80.5 years, compared with 75.1 for men. The NCHS did not include figures for Asian Americans or other racial groups.

With the United States approaching 500,000 deaths from the pandemic alone, experts were not surprised by the new data. But they said the size of the reduction in life expectancy, particularly for Black and Latino Americans, was greater than expected.

“This is a big departure. We haven’t seen anything this large since the first half of the 20th century, when infectious disease was much more common,” said Elizabeth Arias, a health scientist for the NCHS and lead author of the paper.

The difference between White and minority drops in life expectancy caused the most alarm.

“Those are very large disparities, and it reflects that the pandemic affected these two minority groups much more than the majority population,” Arias said. “So they experienced the bulk of the mortality.”

The coronavirus has devastated communities of color across the country. Some have high populations of essential workers who cannot avoid the virus in their jobs or who live in multigenerational homes. Black and Latino Americans are more likely to have poorer access to health care, including coronavirus testing, and have underlying health conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, that increase their vulnerability to covid-19.

‘I just pray God will help me.’ Racial, ethnic minorities reel from higher covid-19 death rates

Data in the new study also comes from the first six months of 2020, when the virus did its worst damage in a surge through the Northeast, home to large Black and Latino populations. Second and third surges swept wider swaths of the United States. Arias said that when her team examines a full year of data, she expects it will show a greater proportion of White deaths.

The data also reflects an increased death total from other causes, such as strokes and drug overdoses, that are part of the pandemic’s collateral damage. In the early months of 2020, some seriously ill people delayed seeking health care out of fear of the new and lethal virus.

In an October study, the CDC estimated that perhaps a third of these “excess deaths” — the number of deaths greater than would be expected in a typical year — were caused by factors other than covid-19.

“There is nothing good to be said,” said Anne Case, the Princeton economics professor who coined the term “deaths of despair” with her husband, Princeton economist Angus Deaton. “In addition to covid, we know that the drug epidemic continues to surge, as well.”

In December, the CDC reported that the number of overdose deaths exceeded 81,000 in the year that ended in May 2020. That was the largest number ever recorded in a 12-month period.

Other researchers have reached conclusions similar to the CDC’s. In a Feb. 2 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that looked at data for all of 2020, Theresa Andrasfay of the University of Southern California and Noreen Goldman of Princeton estimated that U.S. life expectancy would fall by 1.13 years as a result of the pandemic. Black and Latino Americans would suffer reductions three to four times greater than White Americans, they said.

“Consequently, covid-19 is expected to reverse over 10 [years] of progress made in closing the Black−White gap in life expectancy and reduce the previous Latino mortality advantage by over 70%,” they wrote.

In a separate examination, a team led by Spanish researcher Héctor Pifarré i Arolas concluded that the number of years of life lost to covid-19 in the United States would be five times greater than the number lost to the worst flu season of the past two decades.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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