COVID-19 Ranks as a Leading Cause of Death in U.S.

Dec. 17, 2020 — COVID-19 became a leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2020, particularly for people over age 35, according to a new report published in JAMA on Thursday.

Adults over age 45 were more likely to die from COVID-19 than car crashes, respiratory diseases, drug overdoses, and suicide. And those over age 55 faced even higher rates of dying due to the coronavirus.

“The current exponential increase in COVID-19 is reaching a calamitous scale in the U.S.,” the authors wrote. “Putting these numbers in perspective may be difficult.”

Population health researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University put COVID-19 deaths into context by comparing this year’s numbers to the leading causes of death for March through October 2018, sorting by age.

By October 2020, COVID-19 had become the third leading cause of death overall for those between the ages of 45 and 84, following after heart disease and cancer. For those over age 85, COVID-19 was the second leading cause of death, surpassing cancer and following behind heart disease.

For people ages 35-44, COVID-19 surpassed car crashes and respiratory diseases and was slightly lower than suicide, heart disease, and cancer. For those under age 35, drug overdoses, suicide, and car crashes remained the leading causes of death.

Importantly, the authors wrote, death rates for the two leading causes — heart disease and cancer — are about 1,700 and 1,600 per day, respectively. COVID-19 deaths have surpassed these numbers individually throughout December and, on Wednesday, beat them combined. More than 3,400 deaths were reported, according to the COVID Tracking Project, marking an all-time high that continues to increase. Hospitalizations were also at a new high, with more than 113,000 COVID-19 patients in hospitals across the country, and another 232,000 new cases were reported.

“With COVID-19 mortality rates now exceeding these thresholds, this infectious disease has become deadlier than heart disease and cancer,” the authors wrote. “Its lethality may increase further as transmission increases with holiday travel and gatherings and with the intensified indoor exposure that winter brings.”

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