- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 22, 2022

Deaths from COVID-19 and drug overdoses last year have pushed U.S. life expectancy to its lowest levels since 1996, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday.

The rate increased by 5.3%, from 835.4 deaths per 100,000 people in 2020 to 879.7 deaths per 100,000 last year, the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics reported.

That drove the expected lifespan of the average American down for the second straight year, from 77 years in 2020 to 76.4 years last year. Life expectancy had risen to 78.8 years in 2019, the last year before the pandemic.

The decline occurred as deaths from COVID-19 increased by 59.7%, unintentional injuries by 19.7%, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis by 3.1%, suicide by 2.0% and homicide by 1.7%, report co-author Elizabeth Arias said.

“With the exception of chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, these are the same causes of death contributing to the decline in life expectancy in 2020,” Ms. Arias, a CDC health scientist, said in an email. “COVID-19 had the largest negative impact on the change in life expectancy in 2021 as it did in 2020. In 2020, increases in mortality due to COVID-19 explained 61.2% of the decline in life expectancy. In 2021, it explained 59.7%.”

Drug overdoses account for more than one-third of all deaths from accidental injuries, the authors reported.

Overdose deaths rose 14%, from 91,799 in 2020 to 106,699 in 2021. The overdose death rate increased from 28.3 per 100,000 people in 2020 to 32.4 deaths per 100,000 in 2021.

Rates were highest among adults ages 35-44 as spikes occurred in all racial and ethnic groups, said Merianne Spencer, a CDC statistician.

Skyrocketing increases in deaths from synthetic opioids drove the surge, she added in an email.

“For synthetic opioids other than methadone — which includes drugs such as fentanyl and tramadol — rates increased substantially over the period,” Ms. Spencer said. “From 2020 to 2021, the rate increased 22% from 17.8 in 2020 to 21.8 in 2021.”

Pandemic surges in COVID-19 deaths, drug overdoses and suicides are closely related, and many drug suicides get misreported as accidents, said Dr. Aldo Morales, a fellow of the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

“COVID and its resultant psychosocial stressors accounted for an increase in the suicide rate as well as the overdose rate,” said Dr. Morales, the medical director of Retreat Behavioral Healthcare in Florida.

Drug addiction relapses across the country “increased greatly due to COVID,” the psychiatrist noted in an email, adding that fentanyl is “100 to 150 times more potent than morphine.”

“Fentanyl is the new heroin,” Dr. Morales said. “An addicted patient will always seek out the more potent agent. Patients end up with accidental overdoses due to the potency of fentanyl.”

Doctors have warned fentanyl is increasingly found in other illegal substances like methamphetamine, cocaine and Xanax — and many addicts develop psychoses by using it in conjunction with alcohol and marijuana.

Most fentanyl addictions develop when doctors over-prescribe opioids as painkillers to surgery patients, said Dr. Ehsan Jazini, a surgeon at the Virginia Spine Institute who studies the trend.

“The opioid crisis demands a comprehensive approach that starts not just in giving the emergency department physicians and staff resources they need to treat patients who come to their door, but also tackling it at the level of other at-risk patients, especially those undergoing major surgeries such as spine and orthopedic procedures,” Dr. Jazini told The Washington Times.

According to the CDC, rising COVID-19 and drug overdose deaths have threatened men and women equally.

In last year’s drop of 0.6 years in life expectancy, men and women declined at roughly the same rate. The average life expectancy for men fell by 0.7 years to 73.5 last year and by 0.6 years to 79.3 for women.

The top 10 leading causes of death essentially did not change from 2020 to 2021. Heart disease, cancer and COVID-19 were the three top causes of death, respectively, in both years.

The only change last year came from chronic liver disease and cirrhosis becoming the ninth leading cause of death, pushing influenza and pneumonia out of the top 10.

It’s noteworthy that COVID-19 remained the fastest-growing cause of death in 2021 for the second year in a row, said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

“This is despite the widespread availability of the vaccines in the second half of the year, rendering many of those deaths preventable,” the infectious disease specialist said in an email. “To remove the ability of COVID to exact this toll on the population we need to optimize the use of vaccines, boosters, and antivirals rather than leaving them on the shelf.”

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

• Sean Salai can be reached at ssalai@washingtontimes.com.

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