by Mike Stobe | The Associated Press
NEW YORK – 2021 was the deadliest year in US history, and new data and research are providing more insight into how it got worse.
The main reason for the increase in deaths? COVID-19, said Robert Anderson, who oversees the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s work on death statistics.
The agency quietly updated its provisional death toll this month. It showed there were 3.465 million deaths last year, or nearly 80,000 more than the 2020 record-setting total.
Early last year, some experts were optimistic that 2021 would not be as bad as the first year of the pandemic – partly because effective COVID-19 vaccines eventually became available.
“Unfortunately, we were wrong,” said Princeton University researcher Noreen Goldman.
Experts said the COVID-19 death toll will rise to more than 415,000 in 2021 from 351,000 a year earlier – as new coronavirus variants emerged and an unexpectedly large number of Americans stopped getting vaccinated. Refused or hesitated to wear a mask.
Coronavirus is not the only one to blame. Preliminary CDC data also shows that crude mortality rates for cancer have increased slightly, and rates for diabetes, chronic liver disease and stroke continue to rise.
Drug overdose deaths also continued to rise. The CDC does not yet have an account for 2021 overdose deaths, as it could take weeks of lab work and investigations to identify them. But provisional figures for October show the nation is on track to see at least 105,000 overdose deaths in 2021 – up from 93,000 a year earlier.
New research released Tuesday found a particularly large jump in overdose deaths among 14 to 18-year-olds.
According to the paper published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, the number of teen overdose deaths was fairly stable over the past decade, around 500 per year. They nearly doubled to 954 in 2020, and researchers estimate that last year’s total hit about 1,150.
Joseph Friedman, a researcher at UCLA who was the paper’s lead author, called the spike “unprecedented.”
Those teen overdose deaths accounted for only 1% of the US total. But adolescents experienced a greater relative increase than the overall population, even though surveys show that drug use is low among adolescents.
Experts attributed the spike to fentanyl, a highly lethal drug that has been cut into heroin for many years. More recently it has also been pressed into counterfeit pills, which resemble prescription drugs, which teens sometimes abuse.
National death trends affect life expectancy – an estimate of the average number of children born in a given year can expect to live.
With rare exceptions, American life expectancy has increased reliably year after year. But the CDC’s life expectancy estimate for 2020 was about 77 years — a year and a half less than in 2019.
The CDC has not yet reported its count for 2021. But Goldman and some other researchers are making their own guesses, presented in papers that have not yet been published in peer-reviewed journals.
Those researchers think US life expectancy drops by another five or six months in 2021 – putting it back where it was 20 years ago.
The loss of more than two years of life expectancy in the past two years is “huge,” Goldman said.
One study looked at death statistics in the US and 19 other high-income countries. America’s performance was the worst.
“What happened in the US is down to the level of resistance to vaccination and the public’s disapproval of practices such as masking and mandates to reduce viral transmission,” said Dr. Steven Woolf of Virginia Commonwealth, one of the study’s authors. The university said in a statement.
Some experts doubt that life expectancy will return quickly. They worry about the long-term complications of COVID-19 that could accelerate the death of people with chronic health problems.
Preliminary – and incomplete – CDC data suggests that there were at least 805,000 US deaths in the first three months of this year. This is significantly lower than the same period last year, but higher than the comparable period in 2020.
“We could end up with a ‘new normal’ that’s a little bit higher than before,” Anderson said.
The Associated Press Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.