US deaths have fallen this year, but not to pre-COVID levels

NEW YORK (AP) — The number of deaths in the U.S. has fallen this year, but it’s still more than before the coronavirus hit.

Preliminary data – covering the first 11 months of the year – indicate fewer deaths in 2022 than in the previous two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to current reports, the number of deaths could fall by about 3% from 2020 and by about 7% from 2021.

The number of deaths in the US usually increases from year to year, in part because the country’s population is growing. The pandemic accelerated that trend and made last year the deadliest in U.S. history, killing more than 3.4 million. If current trends continue, this year will be the first annual drop in deaths since 2009.

It will be months before health officials have a full count. The October and November numbers are not yet complete, and an increase from late December could change the final picture, said Farida Ahmad, who leads mortality monitoring at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If the decline continues, it will still be a long way from where the nation was before the coronavirus appeared. This year’s count is likely to be at least 13% higher than in 2019.

“We are (still) definitely worse off than we were before the pandemic,” said Amira Roess, a professor of epidemiology and global health at George Mason University.

Again, most of the annual change is due to the ebb and flow of COVID-19, which has killed more than 1,080,000 Americans since it was first recognized in the US in early 2020.

This year started off horribly, with around 73,000 COVID deaths in January alone — the third deadliest month from COVID-19 since the pandemic began. For 2022, “most of the deaths were concentrated during that omicron wave at the beginning of the year,” said Iliya Gutin, a University of Texas researcher who tracks COVID-19 mortality.

Monthly deaths from COVID-19 fell below 4,000 in April and averaged about 16,000 per month through November. The monthly average for 2021 was more than double.

COVID-19 will nevertheless become the country’s third leading cause of death this year, as it did in 2020 and 2021 – behind the perennial leader, heart disease and cancer.

The number of deaths from heart disease, which tends to rise along with COVID-19 deaths, is on track to decline from 2021, Ahmad said. And it’s not clear whether the number of cancer deaths will change, based on preliminary data.

There may be some relatively good news about drug overdose deaths, which hit an all-time high last year. Preliminary data on overdose deaths posted Wednesday by the CDC — covering the first seven months of this year — suggest that the number of overdose deaths stopped rising early this year, around the end of last winter.

Also Wednesday, the CDC released its first report on deaths from long-term COVID — prolonged symptoms after a person recovers from a coronavirus infection. The CDC estimates that about 3,500 deaths from January 2020 through June 2022 involved long-term COVID. That’s about 1% of deaths where COVID was considered the underlying or contributing cause.

Experts believe that pharmaceutical weapons against the coronavirus have made a difference. The Commonwealth Fund released a pilot study this week that concluded that the US COVID-19 vaccination program has prevented more than 3.2 million deaths.

“We would all really expect the number of deaths — and the number of serious cases — to decrease as a result of a combination of immunity to natural infection and vaccination … and treatment,” Roess said.

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The Associated Press Health and Science division is supported by the Science and Educational Media Group of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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