The pandemic’s toll: Total deaths, death from heart disease both up in the US

Total deaths were up 20% in the United States during the first five months of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new analysis published in JAMA. This includes a sharp rise in deaths from heart disease, which the authors directly tied to COVID-19.  

Total death counts in the United States are typically consistent from one year to the next, the authors noted—but the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has changed that trend, at least temporarily.

“Contrary to skeptics who claim that COVID-19 deaths are fake or that the numbers are much smaller than we hear on the news, our research and many other studies on the same subject show quite the opposite,” wrote lead author Steven Woolf, MD, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University, said in a prepared statement.

Woolf’s team explored death count data from March 1 to Aug. 1, 2020, comparing the actual numbers with what regression models predicted based on preexisting data. They observed that the increase in deaths from causes other than COVID-19 can still, in many ways, be connected to the pandemic.  

“Some people who never had the virus may have died because of disruptions caused by the pandemic,” he said in the same statement. “These include people with acute emergencies, chronic diseases like diabetes that were not properly care for, or emotional crises that led to overdoses or suicides.”

Woolf also noted that his team’s findings show just how important social distancing policies can be to containing COVID-19. When some states shifted back to business as usual, for instance, it led to a rise in mortality.

“We can't prove causally that the early reopening of those states led to the summer surges,” Woolf said. “But it seems quite likely. And most models predict our country will have more excess deaths if states don't take more assertive approaches in dealing with community spread. The enforcement of mask mandates and social distancing is really important if we are to avoid these surges and major loss of life.”

The full research letter from Woolf et al. is available in JAMA here.