States with High COVID-19 Death Rates Also Saw High Mortality from other Causes.
States with High COVID-19 Death Rates Also Saw High Mortality from other Causes
New research shows that between March 2020 and February 2021, non-COVID deaths accounted for some 20 percent of excess mortality.
During the first year of the pandemic, states in the US with high rates of death from COVID-19 saw significant increases in other causes of death, too, including cardiovascular disease, dementia, diabetes, and influenza, according to a new study led by the School of Public Health, the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and published recently in the journal PLOS ONE.
“States with the most COVID-19 deaths also saw more deaths from heart disease, cancer, and dementia,” says study coauthor Andrew Stokes, assistant professor of global health. “This relationship suggests that the geographic inequalities in mortality associated with the pandemic were much worse than indicated by COVID-19 death rates alone.”
The work sheds light on one of the pandemic puzzles for demographers. Since the COVID-19 virus emerged, non-COVID deaths have accounted for a significant amount of total excess mortality, or the number of people who died for any reason above and beyond what would have been expected under normal circumstances. “We decided we needed to capture a fuller picture of how the pandemic contoured the mortality landscape in the United States,” says study lead author Anneliese Luck, a Penn doctoral student. “We wanted to look beyond COVID-19 deaths.”
To find cause-specific mortality data, Luck and colleagues turned to a database from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called WONDER, which stands for Wide-ranging Online Data for Epidemiologic Research. They also pulled population statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. Then, for the period between March 2020 and February 2021, for all states and Washington, D.C., the researchers calculated death rates for three age groups and nine underlying causes.
Their analysis showed that non-COVID causes explain about 20 percent of excess mortality during that time frame. More specifically, for those 25 and older, circulatory disease accounted for more than 50 percent of this, with dementia, influenza/pneumonia, and diabetes also playing a role.
“The real anomaly is cancer,” says study senior author and Penn demographer Samuel Preston. “States with unusually high death rates from COVID had unusually high declines in death rates from cancer. I don’t think most people would have anticipated that.”
Though the data don’t explain the reason for these findings, Stokes, Preston, and Luck offer several possible explanations. For one, states with high COVID death rates likely had unusually crowded medical facilities pressed in their ability to handle routine medical issues. Plus, fear over what was then a new and scary virus called COVID-19 may have prevented people from seeking care.
Second, the researchers say deaths may have been miscoded on death certificates. “This is particularly likely when there is a synergistic relationship between a disease process and COVID, like someone with preexisting cardiovascular disease being more susceptible to the virus,” Preston says. “When that person dies, the death may be as likely assigned to the preexisting heart disease as it is to COVID.” Beyond that, their data also revealed that certain parts of the country underreported COVID deaths.
“Our study clearly shows that mortality associated with the COVID epidemic is underestimated,” Preston says.
“That’s the bottom line,” says Stokes, who notes that such misclassification often keeps communities in the dark. “Gaps in reporting or deaths not being registered as COVID deaths could mean communities aren’t fully aware of the severity of the pandemic there,” he says. “The pandemic is at least partially hidden from view.”
Though the researchers haven’t studied whether this trend continued beyond the pandemic’s first year, they say that the findings indicate a need for better cause-of-death coding. And, given that states serve as key drivers in shaping the policies that affect how people live and seek medical care, the researchers also suggest a more focused exploration of state-level differences in health care utilization, in particular looking at sociodemographic, behavioral, and environmental characteristics across the U.S. “We hope our findings call attention to the pandemic’s full mortality burden,” Luck says, “and help inform how states continue responding to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.”
I wonder if Covid 29 could have been a contributing cause for some of these deaths. For example, my brother died of cancer but it was the blood clots from his prior Covid infection that made him unable to tolerate chemotherapy. I feel that death is still Covid related.