- This story is regularly updated for relevance. Last updated: Aug. 4, 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, 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.
Six months after the end of 2020, a study showed that life expectancy in the U.S. dropped by 1.9 years. For a Black American, that number dropped by 3.25 years, and for a Hispanic American, the number tumbled by nearly 4 years.
“These are numbers we aren’t at all used to seeing in this research; 0.1 years is something that normally gets attention in the field, so 3.9 years and 3.25 years and even 1.4 years is just horrible,” Steven Woolf, who led the study, said, via NBC News. “We haven’t had a decrease of that magnitude since World War II.”
The coronavirus, which passed the grim milestone of 500,000 U.S. deaths by February 2021, 550,000 by the end of March, and 600,000 by mid-June, 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.
In a study conducted at Yale, though, it was estimated that the arrival of the COVID vaccines saved as many as 279,000 lives.
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.” The number of drug overdose deaths also jumped to 93,000, a gain of about 29% year over year. Deaths caused by influenza, though, virtually disappeared in 2020.