COVID-19 pushed up U.S. death rate in 2020, especially for people of color Americans' life expectancy declined by nearly two years in 2020 compared to the year before, primarily because of COVID-19. The drop in life expectancy was bigger for men, and for Blacks and Latinos.

COVID sent last year's U.S. death rate soaring, especially among people of color

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The CDC is reporting new data on life expectancy in the U.S. It finds that the death rate in the country went up dramatically in 2020 compared to the year before, primarily because of the COVID pandemic. As NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee reports, that led to the biggest drop in life expectancy seen in decades.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: The overall mortality rate in the United States went up by nearly 17% last year.

BOB ANDERSON: And that corresponded to a drop in life expectancy of 1.8 years.

CHATTERJEE: Bob Anderson is the chief of the mortality statistics branch at the CDC. He says all age groups 15 and up saw a rise in deaths last year.

ANDERSON: Obviously, we have a large number of deaths that are directly attributable to COVID.

CHATTERJEE: Ten percent of all deaths were due to COVID-19, making it the third-largest cause of death in the country. But there were rises in deaths from other causes, too, like heart disease and stroke.

ANDERSON: We do know that COVID can cause circulatory complications, and so some of these might actually be COVID related.

CHATTERJEE: And some, he says, were likely because people had trouble accessing care because of the pandemic. The report also documents a big jump in deaths from unintentional injuries, mostly drug overdose deaths, which had already started to climb up by the end of 2019.

ANDERSON: As the pandemic arose, the increases got steeper, so the pandemic certainly, I think, had an impact, even though it's not the sole driver of what's going on.

JOSE MANUEL ABURTO: Given the impact of the pandemic, specifically in the U.S., it is not surprising that we see this drop in life expectancy.

CHATTERJEE: Jose Manuel Aburto is a demographer at the University of Oxford.

ABURTO: What I do find very surprising is the magnitude of the loss.

CHATTERJEE: The report finds that the drop in life expectancy in the U.S. is the largest single-year decrease in more than 75 years. And Aburto and his colleagues' research shows that among 29 developed countries, American males experienced the biggest drop in life expectancy last year. Dr. Steven Woolf is director emeritus at the Center of Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University. He says even before the pandemic, the U.S. was already lagging behind other rich countries in health outcomes.

STEVEN WOOLF: So there's a complex set of reasons why, in general, the health of Americans is inferior to people in other countries, and all of those issues rolled into the pandemic.

CHATTERJEE: Lack of access to care and socioeconomic disparities are big factors, he says, and only exacerbated by the pandemic, causing disproportionate impacts on underprivileged communities - something that's documented in the new CDC report.

WOOLF: The increase in mortality was twice as high for the Black population and three times as high for the Hispanic population. This is the product of our society and the barriers it places to access to health and good opportunity.

CHATTERJEE: And those barriers will need to be addressed, he says, for the U.S. to see a drop in death rates in the long run, but with the pandemic still raging, we can bring down deaths in the short term by following public health guidelines. Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.

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