Over a million more Americans than expected have died during the covid-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found. An overwhelming majority of these excess deaths can be directly tied to the coronavirus, but others may be the result of increased fatalities from conditions indirectly worsened by the pandemic.
The CDC has been keeping track of excess deaths (deaths above the average baseline of a given time period) throughout the pandemic. As of last week, their tally climbed to over a million dead, and as of Wednesday morning, it stands at 1,045,389. Officially, just around 925,000 Americans have died from covid-19.
Excess deaths are thought to provide a clearer picture of the destruction wrought by large-scale mortality events like a pandemic. Early on, for instance, it was clear that many deaths linked to the pandemic in the U.S. weren’t being counted as such, though tracking has improved since then. But even now, many countries appear to have dramatically underestimated their covid-19 death tolls, likely as a result of poorly functioning health care systems and intentional attempts to downplay the pandemic’s impact.
A substantial proportion of these excess deaths were explicitly caused by an acute infection from the coronavirus. Even people who survive their initial bout of covid-19 can be left with a higher risk of dying from conditions that arose or worsened as a result of infection, particularly cardiovascular problems. But some deaths may be linked to trends indirectly tied to the pandemic.
Fatal car accidents have noticeably risen during the past two years, for instance, perhaps because drivers have taken more risks on emptier roads. Other conditions like cancer or heart disease may have turned deadly as a result of people not getting timely care during spikes of the pandemic or due to a shortage of precious resources like donated blood. Yet some causes of death have actually become less prominent during the pandemic, such as deaths from influenza and other respiratory infections, due to containment measures that curtailed these less contagious diseases.
It will likely take years to sift through the data and get firm estimates of the deaths directly and indirectly caused by the pandemic, or at least a range of estimates. But what is clear is that too many have unnecessarily died.
In the first year of the pandemic, the U.S. did far less to contain covid-19 cases than its peers, and many more Americans died than did residents in those respective countries. And despite covid-19 vaccines being developed in record time and likely having saved millions of lives in 2021, many people have turned them down or not been able to access them. Even today, in the midst of the country’s second deadliest peak of the pandemic, politicians, pundits, and even some public health experts have called for the U.S. to wind down the few pandemic-related measures still around, such as mask mandates.
The pandemic will eventually end, but not before having shown us that mass death and suffering can be all too easily ignored.