WASHINGTON, D.C. — Americans continue to contract COVID-19, mainly among those who are not vaccinated.
"We can't say anymore, ‘Well, it's the old people who are going to die.’ It's young people now who are coming in very sick," said Dr. Paul Holtom, an epidemiologist with USC Medical Center.
Yet, there is another group that researchers are just now beginning to look at: deaths not necessarily directly related to the virus.
“In other words, COVID was not on their death certificate,” said Dr. Sheldon Jacobson, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
He and others analyzed all of the U.S. deaths that occurred in 2020 during the nine-month period when no COVID-19 vaccine was available yet. They found deaths not caused by the virus rose by 40%, but it goes deeper than that.
For people ages 15 to 24, compared to the previous five years, there was an 18% increase. That’s 42,000 more deaths not directly related to COVID-19. Most of the impact was felt by men, who made up three-quarters of the deaths in that age group.
“Men have been harder hit than women during this pandemic, especially in excess deaths not related to COVID,” Dr. Jacobson said.
Why? Researchers are still awaiting the release of more 2020 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for analysis, but there are some theories.
“There was a recent report that there was a 30% increase in opioid overdoses since that from last year,” Dr. Jacobson said. “Yet, COVID-19 is not directly associated with that, although it could have indirectly precipitated it.”
While the number of deaths not directly linked to COVID-19 increased for some age groups, it decreased for another: young children.
For children four years of age and under, compared to the past five years, there was a decrease in the number of deaths during the pandemic: 2,000 fewer. Lifestyle changes for many during the pandemic may be part of the reason why.
“Because of the societal changes: more people staying at home, less opportunities for accidents, either in vehicles, swimming accidents, drownings, which are very common for this age group, we did not see these deaths occur,” Dr. Jacobson said. “So, in some sense, the environment made it protective.”
However, researchers say there is one thing that the data showed overall.
“The hidden message from this analysis is that vaccination is so important. And you may say, ‘why is that true?’ And the reason is that the vaccines provide the most reliable approach to reduce the hospitalization and fatality risk,” Dr. Jacobson said. “We can get back to a society that we had prepared to make and all of these excess deaths should go away.”
It is a post-COVID society the world has yet to reach.