Are fewer people dying now from COVID-19 than they were at the beginning of the pandemic?

percentage of people who die from covid
Photo via Hospital CLINIC/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)
  • This story is regularly updated for relevance. Last updated: July 20, 2021

After ups and downs throughout the pandemic, the death rate for COVID-19 has been dropping in the second quarter of 2021, thanks primarily to the three vaccinations that are being used in the U.S. More than a year into the pandemic, the percentage of people who die from COVID-19 had been vastly reduced, but it’s possible those trends could still change.

When the pandemic first struck the U.S. in March 2020, the mortality rate was between 2-3%, according to the Washington Post. Early reports from China put the mortality rate at closer to 7%. Elderly and high-risk populations were the hardest hit initially, leading to a sharp rise in deaths. Now, though, this population is at far less risk, because elderly people were, by and large, some of the first people to get vaccinated. Those who are considered high-risk have also been well versed in mask-wearing, social distancing, and avoiding large crowds.

As of mid-May, kids aged 12-15 can get the Pfizer vaccine, opening up vaccinations for millions of more U.S. citizens.

At this point, about 2.1% of the world’s population that has been diagnosed with COVID has died. In the U.S., it’s about 1.8%.

These days, a far younger portion of the U.S. population is making up the vast majority of the COVID-19 case count, particularly in Republican states with low vaccination rates. Young people tend to be far less vulnerable to complications from COVID-19, leading to milder cases and a far greater chance of recovery, but new coronavirus variants have put more young adults in the hospital.

Near the end of 2020, the CDC estimated the mortality rate would be far lower if it included people who were infected with COVID but unaware. Asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 are very common, and if those cases were included, the CDC predicts the mortality rate would be closer to 0.65%.

In late 2020, though, the U.S. had a higher death rate, per capita, than anywhere else in the world. A study published in October compared the U.S. death rates over the early months of the pandemic to those of 18 other countries with populations of above 5 million. The data is considered “all-cause,” which allows it to take into account unconfirmed deaths that may have been caused by COVID-19 as well as those that occurred due to overcrowded hospitals or people avoiding hospital care. 

Early on, overall deaths in the U.S. were more than 85% higher than those in places like Germany, Denmark, and Israel, adjusting for population size, according to NPR. Considering only COVID-19 deaths and no potentially connected deaths, the U.S. mortality rate was still an average of 50% higher than every other country in the study. 

In May 2021, though, it was still unknown just how many people had died from COVID. Take the case of Peru, for example. The country had to revise its death total, going from 69,000 deaths to more than 180,000. That new total made it the country with the highest death rate per capita in the world.

In a preliminary study that came out in June, it was estimated that 1.7 million people from India could have died from COVID (at the time, the official death count was about 350,000).

With the percentage of people who die from COVID having been lowered substantially—by May 2021, the U.S. was hitting its lowest death rates in 10 months—the U.S. has begun loosening its restrictions. But January 2021 was still a deadly month in the U.S., and with vaccine hesitancy, some people just outright refusing to get vaccinated, and the rise of the delta variant, the pandemic certainly isn’t over yet. 

Sources: Washington Post, Johns Hopkins, NPR, StatNews

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