The covid-19 pandemic has just breezed through another ignoble milestone in the U.S. The viral disease has taken more American lives this year than almost all other leading causes—it ranks behind only heart disease and cancer.
In 2017, the last year with fully available data, the third leading cause of death was accidents, thought to have killed 169,936 Americans; the fourth was chronic lower respiratory diseases, such as emphysema and asthma, with 160,201 attributed deaths. As of Tuesday, August 18, at least 171,000 Americans are reported to have died from covid-19, according to Johns Hopkins University’s tracker. Heart disease and cancer are thought to have killed a total of 647,457 and 599,108 Americans in 2017, respectively.
While the specifics of how many people will die from one cause or other this year are still in flux, the trends themselves are unlikely to change.
Both 2016 and 2018 saw no change in the order of the top 10 leading causes of death relative to 2017. By all available projections, the death toll of covid-19 in America will continue to grow. By the fall, upwards of 200,000 Americans will have died from the coronavirus, and there’s a chance that the country will reach 300,000 recorded deaths by year’s end.
Even this official count is underestimating the true impact of the pandemic, though. According to data collected by the CDC, there have been around 220,000 excess deaths so far in 2020 relative to past years, or about 50,000 more than the official covid-19 death toll. Not all of these deaths may have been directly caused by covid-19—some could represent deaths linked to reduced ER visits, for instance—but a substantial chunk likely were.
Though it should go without saying, many if not most of these deaths were entirely preventable. All other countries during this global pandemic have reported far fewer deaths than the U.S., and most have even when taking population size into account. Some countries, such as Spain and France, had large waves of illness during their respective peaks, but they and most other countries now have far lower levels of infection circulating in their communities.
All of this is underscored by the fact that we’re only six months into the pandemic. And though there are reasons to be hopeful that the U.S. can better weather this storm moving forward than it has so far, there are also reasons to be concerned that the worst is yet to come this fall and winter.