- This story is regularly updated for relevance. Last updated: June 9, 2021
The United States recorded more than 3 million deaths in 2020. That would make it a record year for deaths—and the COVID-19 pandemic is a significant factor for how so many Americans died in 2020.
The Associated Press noted in late December that “preliminary numbers suggest that the United States is on track to see more than 3.2 million deaths this year, or at least 400,000 more than in 2019.” This would represent a rise of about 15% from 2019’s numbers, and, depending on finalized December numbers, could be even greater.
It’s the highest single-year percentage leap since 1918, when a flu pandemic and World War I contributed significantly to American death totals. In 1918, death totals rose an alarming 47% from the previous year. The Native American communities in the U.S. also were greatly affected by the pandemic in 2020.
According to a pair of government reports that came out in March 2021, COVID accounted for 11% of American deaths in 2020, behind only heart disease and cancer.
According to the AP, there was reason to be hopeful for overall death numbers to come down in 2020 before the pandemic emerged. The article notes that the overall mortality rate fell a bit throughout the U.S. in 2019, attributable to reductions in heart disease and cancer deaths.
Fortune, in its coverage of the news, added that the number of American deaths “typically rises by a few tens of thousands every year” due to the aging of the population. It also noted that the age-adjusted death rate dropped about 1% in 2019, and according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, life expectancy rose by about six weeks to 78.8 years.
The AP article quoted the CDC’s Robert Anderson, who said life expectancy for 2020 could end up dropping as much as three full years due to coronavirus-driven trends.
“It was actually a pretty good year for mortality, as things go,” said Anderson, who oversees CDC death statistics.
However, the coronavirus, which passed the grim milestone of 500,000 U.S. deaths by February 2021 and 550,000 by the end of March, impacted the numbers in direct and indirect ways, and some additional expected effects of the pandemic didn’t quite manifest as expected. Thanks to the Modern and Pfizer vaccines, about 50% of Americans had been fully vaccinated by May 2020, dramatically lowering the death rate.
By mid-May, though, the U.S. was still averaging one COVID death every two minutes, even though the death rate had dropped to its lowest number in 10 months and the case rate had fallen to its lowest levels in a year.
According to the AP, “a burst of pneumonia cases early this year may have been COVID-19 deaths that simply weren’t recognized as such early in the epidemic.” There’s also data and anecdotal evidence pointing to drug overdose deaths being on the rise, with the pandemic playing a role.
Despite the expectation that automobile accident-related deaths would decline as commuting and other types of driving declined in 2020, the AP reported that “data on that is not yet in, but anecdotal reports suggest there was no such decline.”
When focused on how many Americans died in 2020, the U.S. death totals, according to the CDC, also included “an unexpected number of deaths from certain types of heart and circulatory diseases, diabetes, and dementia.” Deaths caused by influenza, though, virtually disappeared in 2020.