New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed there were 3,465 million deaths in the U.S. in 2021. The number surpasses the record-setting 2020 total by 80,000 deaths and makes 2021 the deadliest year in U.S. history.
Some researchers attribute the spike to COVID-19 and a rise in drug overdose deaths.
Highland County Health Commissioner Jared Warner noted that the CDC chart of excess mortality only lists deaths and not the causes. “This chart doesn’t differentiate between causes of death — it strictly looks at how many people died total,” he said.
“It helps to sidestep some of the controversy because people feel like we’re attributing some deaths to COVID when they are not COVID deaths, and there is concern about that, but this strictly looks at how many people died in this week of 2020 or 2021 and so forth, and it gives an idea that something incredibly out of the ordinary has happened, and whether you buy into COVID or not, this chart is really hard to argue with because the data is there,” said Warner.
Warner did not have data specific to Highland County on hand. “We’re a pretty small health department, so we don’t employ our own epidemiologist that does that kind of work,” he said.
Robert Anderson, who oversees the CDC’s work on death statistics, did point to COVID-19 as the main reason for the increase in deaths.
Early last year some experts were optimistic that 2021 would not be as bad as the first year of the pandemic, in part because vaccines had become available. “We were wrong, unfortunately,” said Noreen Goldman, a Princeton University researcher.
COVID-19 is not the only factor to blame for the 2021 increase. Preliminary CDC data also shows the crude death rate for cancer rose slightly, and rates continued to increase for diabetes, chronic liver disease and stroke.
Drug overdose deaths also continued to rise. The CDC does not yet have a total for 2021 overdose deaths because of the time needed for lab work and investigation to identify them, but provisional data through October suggests the nation is on track to see at least 105,000 overdose deaths in 2021. That would be an increase of 93,000 from the previous year.
Figures released this week showed a particularly large jump in overdose deaths among 14 to 18-year-olds.
Experts attributed the spike in overdose deaths to fentanyl, a highly lethal drug that has been cut into heroin for several years. More recently it has also been pressed into counterfeit pills resembling prescription drugs that teens sometimes abuse.
The national death trends affect life expectancy — an estimate of the average number of years a baby born in a given year might expect to live. With rare exceptions, U.S. life expectancy has reliably moved up each year, but the CDC’s life expectancy estimate for 2020 was about 77 years, which is more than a year and a half lower that it was in 2019.
“What happened in the U.S. is less about the variants than the levels of resistance to vaccination ad the public’s rejection of practices, such as masking and mandates, to reduce viral transmission,” said Dr. Steven Woolf of Virginia Commonwealth University, who was an author of a study examining death data in the U.S. and 19 other high-income countries. The U.S. fared the worst in the study.
Preliminary CDC data suggests the numbers for 2022 may be lower than last year, but higher than 2020.
Reach John Hackley at 937-402-2571.