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From 1980 to 2019, between eight and nine people per 1,000 have died each year in the United States. In 2019, the most recent year with official death estimates, 2,854,838 Americans died, and 3,747,540 were born. That means that 8.7 people died per 1,000 that year — up from a low of 7.9 deaths per 1,000 people in 2009.
Due to lag time in reporting, official data on 2020 deaths will likely not be released until late 2021 or early 2022. However, preliminary weekly data can provide estimates of how the pandemic affected deaths in the US this year.
So far, more than 350,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. According to preliminary weekly data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (as of January 6, 2021), 3,187,086 people died from all causes between January 1 and December 26, 2020. While this data is preliminary and is incomplete for at least the last eight weeks of reported data, it provides for useful context.
According to the same estimates, 2,852,609 people died in 2019, meaning at least 334,000 more people have died so far in 2020 than 2019, despite missing or incomplete data for October through December. Using the recent estimate of the 2020 population from the Census Bureau, the death rate so far in 2020 would be 9.7 deaths per 1,000, the highest death rate since 1949. However, the recent population estimate does not incorporate the results of the 2020 Census, which should improve the accuracy of the estimate.
For context, the most recent estimates from the Census Bureau, which are from 2017, projected that there would be 2.75 million deaths in 2020, accounting for an aging population. The Census Bureau did not expect the nation to reach 3.1 million deaths until 2029 or 2030.
Deaths in 2020 are above average for almost every age group compared to 2015-2019, according to preliminary data from the CDC. Deaths are around average levels for people under 25, which is the age group least affected by COVID-19 deaths. Total deaths in this age group were actually slightly below average during lockdowns at the start of the pandemic. This may be because travel was down, perhaps reducing the leading cause of death for this age group — accidents.
However, deaths have been 20-50% above average levels for most age groups. Deaths among people 25-44 have been particularly above normal, since deaths among people this young are generally low.
Earlier this year, COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death, after heart disease and cancer. This remains true as the end of the year approaches. According to the CDC data, heart disease has killed 661,000 people in 2020, cancer has killed 580,000, and COVID-19 has killed 312,000. (The estimate for deaths from COVID-19 is lower than the estimate of over 350,000 deaths from state and local health agencies because the recent CDC data is incomplete). Cancer deaths are trending slightly lower than last year. However, heart disease deaths trended slightly higher during the spring and summer, when COVID-19 cases were surging, compared to last year.
Weekly flu and pneumonia deaths were higher at the beginning of the year during the end of the 2019-20 flu season, though deaths from the flu this year were not nearly as high as the 2017-18 season, when an estimated 61,000 died of the flu alone. For comparison, the CDC estimates that 34,000 died in the 2018-19 flu season, and 22,000 died in the 2019-20 season.
Flu cases generally peak between December and February, so it remains to be seen if deaths due to flu and pneumonia will be significantly lower this season due to increased public health measures in response to the pandemic. The CDC reported in September that indicators of flu activity declined in the Northern Hemisphere after the recognition of the widespread community transmission of coronavirus, and data shows similar indicators in the Southern Hemisphere. If mask usage, social distancing, remote work, and other public health responses to COVID-19 continue, flu activity may be reduced in the 2020-21 flu season.
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