The U.S. saw more than 400,000 extra deaths in 2020 compared to the previous two years. Much of this excess death was caused by COVID-19. But new research from the University of Notre Dame suggests that around 15 percent of these deaths are not directly related to the virus.
The study was published in the Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences of the United States. It looked at nationwide data from the National Center for Health Statistics and found that the non-COVID excess deaths happened in Black and Brown populations at a much higher rate.
“We're finding that 70 percent of the non-COVID excess deaths are among Black and Brown people. So it's a really, really striking figure,” Christopher Cronin, assistant professor of economics at Notre Dame and co-author of the study, said.
According to the study, the country saw 2.8 million deaths last year as of early March 2020. This is more than 17 percent higher than mortality over the same time period from 2017 through 2019.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that Americans overall have lost a year and a half of life during 2020, but Black and Brown Americans have lost the most years — a drop of 2.8 years for Black Americans and 3.7 for Hispanic Americans.
The new study did not look at the specific reasons behind these deaths. But the researchers suggest that delay in seeking health care, social isolation and the high rates of unemployment and economic distress caused by the pandemic among Black and Brown people was a big reason.
Before the pandemic, Black men were 3.8 percent more likely to be unemployed. This gap kept growing as the pandemic raged — reaching 7.5 percent by July 2020 and settling at 5.4 percent by November 2020.
The study used data on weekly death counts by cause as well as data to quantify life years lost — people dying earlier than they’d be expected to die — from COVID and non-COVD reasons.
It showed that 58 percent of non-COVID excess life years lost were among minorities. Young Black males were the group hit the hardest among all demographics.
“Fifty percent of the life years lost among Black men are due to non-COVID reasons,” Cronin said.
This means that half of the years lost in 2020 for non-COVID reasons were years shaved off Black men’s lives.
“So again, that just reflects that folks who were dying for non-COVID reasons, they're dying at younger ages, and so we're losing a lot more life years,” Cronin said.
For people older than 65, COVID is responsible for nearly all of the excess deaths. But for those younger than 65, excess deaths from non-COVID reasons represented 40 percent in 2020.
The authors of the study hope that this data will push more researchers and policy makers to look into the factors contributing to this gap.
“I think it's highly likely that some of these non-COVID excess deaths are explained by some of the policies that have led to economic shutdowns,” Cronin said.
“The paper just suggests that [this] should be part of the conversation. We have to realize that some of these policies, while they may have had protective effects, there are also consequences that have resulted.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said COVID was responsible for less than 20 percent of the excess deaths for people older than 65. That was incorrect. The study shows that COVID was responsible for nearly all deaths in people older than 65.
This story was reported as part of a partnership between WFYI, Side Effects Public Media and the Indianapolis Recorder.Contact reporter Farah Yousry at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @Farah_Yousrym.