US poised for deadliest year ever as pandemic cuts life expectancy, experts say


The US is on track to record its deadliest year in history, largely due to the pandemic, as public health experts say overall life expectancy for 2020 could drop by as much as three years.

Final mortality data for this year will not be available for months, but preliminary numbers suggest the country will see more than 3.2 million deaths this year. That would be the first time annual deaths have cracked 3 million and would make 2020 the deadliest year on record.

US deaths increase most years, so some annual rise in fatalities is expected. But the 2020 numbers are expected to amount to a jump of about 15%, which would mark the largest single-year percentage leap since 1918, when tens of thousands of US soldiers died in the first world war and hundreds of thousands of Americans died in the 1918 flu pandemic.

Meanwhile, life expectancy could drop as much as three full years, said Robert Anderson of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Tuesday.

Related: Covid conga: maskless Republicans do pandemic danse macabre

In 2019, life expectancy hit 78.8 years, up 0.1 from 2018, the CDC said. The increase stemmed from decreased death rates in heart disease and cancer, the leading and second-leading causes of death in the US. Drug overdose deaths increased after dropping in 2018 but suicides declined for the first time in 14 years.

According to data from Johns Hopkins University, 190,519 new cases in the US on Monday saw the Covid-19 caseload pass 18m. By Tuesday evening, there had been more than 320,000 deaths, 1,696 of them on the day before.

For comparison, in 2019 around 659,000 people died of heart disease in America, and around 600,000 from cancer. The third-leading cause of death, accidents, killed around 173,000.

Vaccines are coming on stream, with public figures having shots to encourage widespread take-up, Joe Biden among them on Monday. Dr Anthony Fauci, the top public health expert, was among those vaccinated on Tuesday.

Amid concern over the new virus variation detected in the UK, US officials sought to assuage fears, saying it should be monitored but its discovery should not be cause for despair.

Health secretary Alex Azar, who was also vaccinated, told Fox News both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines should be effective at preventing illness from the recently discovered variant.

BioNTech chief executive Ugur Sahin told reporters: “Scientifically it is highly likely that the immune response by this vaccine can also deal with this virus variant.”

Fauci told ABC surveillance was necessary to monitor spread of the British variant, but that officials should not overreact.

a person lying on a bed: A patient in a Covid-19 intensive care unit in Houston, Texas. Photograph: Go Nakamura/Getty Images

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A patient in a Covid-19 intensive care unit in Houston, Texas. Photograph: Go Nakamura/Getty Images

“Travel bans are really rather draconian things to do,” he said.

In other news on Tuesday, Dr Deborah Birx, a senior Trump adviser who has seen her reputation battered by the White House taskforce’s failure to combat the pandemic, said she would retire.

The former US army medic told the Newsy website she wanted to help the incoming Biden administration “in any role that people think I can be helpful in, and then I will retire”.

Elsewhere, Mike Pence addressed a rightwing conference in Florida at which social distancing and mask-wearing were not in evidence while in Washington, Trump chose to boast about vaccine distribution, which he said was “going very smoothly”.

Despite reported glitches for which the general in charge of the operation apologised, more than 600,000 Americans, mostly healthcare workers, had received their first vaccine doses by Monday, according to the CDC. Some states began vaccinating long-term care facility residents on Monday.

Nonetheless, some models predict a death toll of more than 500,000 by the spring, and more than 5,000 deaths a day.

Robert Anderson, who leads the CDC National Center for Health Statistics mortality-statistics section, told the Journal he used data through August to determine that life expectancy had dropped by approximately 1.5 years.

“We’ve had a lot of deaths added since August, so I think a drop of two to three years for 2020 isn’t out of the question,” he said.

Related: ‘I’m ready’: Joe Biden receives coronavirus vaccine live on TV

Anderson explained that this would be the greatest decrease since 1943, when fatalities in the second world war led to a 2.9 year decline in life expectancy.

Twenty-five years before that, the Spanish flu resulted in an 11.8-year decline in life expectancy, Anderson said. That sweeping figure stemmed from the fact that virus was especially deadly for children, whose deaths led to a disproportionate decline in life expectancy.

One demographer, Kenneth M Johnson of the University of New Hampshire, reportedly said the pandemic will cause deaths to outpace births in more than 50% of US counties this year – the first time in US history. Such a reversal would come after the US saw its lowest recorded general fertility rate in 2019.

“We’ve got people dying and hospital rooms jammed,” Johnson said. “Who’s going to want to have a baby?”


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