COVID-19 was the third-leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer during the pandemic, according to a study of national death certificate records.
A research letter published Tuesday in JAMA Internal Medicine found that 350,000 Americans died of COVID-19 from March to December 2020. During the same period, 580,000 died of heart disease and 501,000 died of cancer.
From January to October 2021, the study found, 346,000 Americans died of COVID-19, 571,000 died of heart disease and 502,000 died of cancer.
The fourth and fifth leading causes of death from March 2020 to November 2021 were accidents and strokes, respectively.
Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, said it’s rare for an infectious disease other than flu to be among the top 10 causes of death during the past 30 years. No other infectious disease has broken into the top five causes of death during the past five years, he noted in an email.
“My goodness, if that does not rock you, then I’m not sure what would,” Dr. Galiatsatos said. “I cannot fathom one looking at these numbers and being dismissive.”
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Sister Deirdre “Dede” Byrne, a Catholic nun and medical doctor who sued D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser for a religious exemption to COVID-19 vaccine mandates, said many Americans would be surprised to learn that COVID-19 ranked only third.
That’s because the media “definitely overhyped” the lethality of the virus, she said in a text message.
“And increased death due to refusal of alternative therapies such as ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine,” said Sister Byrne, who spoke at the 2020 Republican National Convention.
Public health experts said the high rate of spread of the coronavirus swiftly made COVID-19 a leading cause of death, even if only about 1% of the people who tested positive in the U.S. died from it.
“If one just casually looked at the impact that COVID-19 has had, it shouldn’t be surprising that it is a third leading cause of death,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “Pandemics have the capacity to do this. The 1918 [flu] pandemic had a similar impact. The sheer number of people infected, even with a relatively low case fatality rate, still leads to a high number of deaths.”
Dr. Adalja said that, though cancer and heart disease have higher burdens overall, they are not as calamitous because they do not threaten hospital capacity or disrupt society.
“They are part of the baseline. They are not contagious, they don’t require special personal protective equipment, they don’t have the same impact on society,” he said. “They impact one person. Infectious diseases do not.”
The virus that causes COVID-19 was discovered in Wuhan, China, at the end of 2019. Its impact on the central Chinese city was swift and devastating before the communist government locked people in their homes to wrangle transmission.
Still, COVID-19 spread to population centers in South Korea, Iran and Italy — the first Western nation to embrace lockdowns to try to slow the spread.
U.S. officials said the risk to the American population appeared low at first, but the virus soon gained a foothold and wreaked the same havoc as elsewhere.
Federal data after the first year of the pandemic found roughly 3.2 million people died in the U.S. in 2020, compared with about 2.8 million in 2019.
Although deaths tend to rise with population increases each year, a nearly 15% increase is highly unusual. COVID-19 deaths were driven by the new virus and its ripple effects, as people likely delayed care for other diseases.
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases specialist at Vanderbilt University, said COVID-19 infection also probably accelerated the demise of people whose underlying diseases were listed on their death certificates.
“It pushed them over — made their lung disease, heart disease, worse,” Dr. Schaffner said. “The impact of COVID as stated is larger than the statistic.”
Some political observers agreed.
“To go from zero to third is a lot,” said James Carville, a longtime Democratic Party strategist.
The Children’s Health Defense, an anti-vaccine advocacy group chaired by lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., faulted Tuesday’s study for not exploring the relationship between heart disease deaths and COVID-19 deaths.
“I think it is very telling that deaths related to heart disease increased over the same time period,” said Brian Hooker, the group’s chief science director. “What is absent here is a risk-benefit analysis of COVID-19 vaccination in general, as heart problems have been established as an adverse event associated with vaccination.”
The study found that accidents were the leading cause of death among Americans ages 1 to 44 in 2020 and 2021 and COVID-19 deaths were higher among older Americans.
Among those ages 45 to 54, COVID-19 was the No. 1 leading cause of death in 2021, killing 30,000 people — 16.8% of all deaths for that age group, the study found.
“The pandemic may also have indirectly led to increases in other causes of death, including heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and unintentional injuries,” the study reported.
Four public health researchers studied final national death certificate data for 2020 and provisional data for 2021. They obtained the most recent records from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on May 5.
For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Dr. William Schaffner.