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U.S. fatalities in 2023 return to pre-pandemic trendline

This article first appeared on the Magnolia Tribune.

  • It is unquestionable that the coronavirus pandemic exacted an enormous toll but a great deal of the damage was also due to our reactions to it.

According to the current statistics from the National Center for Health Statistics, the number of fatalities in the United States last year declined to 3,078,290 from 3,269,042 in 2022. That number is very close to the pre-pandemic trendline.

Prior to the pandemic, the number of people who died in the U.S. was very consistent. From 1960-2019, the U.S. fatality rate (fatalities/1,000 population) was about 8.75. The rate ranged from a high of 9.5 to a low of 7.9. From 1970-2010, there was a slight downtrend in the rate. However, beginning in 2011, the rate began a slow, but steady increase, associated with an aging population and a slight decline in life expectancy. But the fatality rate jumped significantly during the pandemic. For 2020-2022, the rate averaged 10.2, about a 22% increase from before the pandemic.

The rate for 2023 was 9.1. In the 10 years prior to the pandemic, the increase in rate was running at about 1.3% per year. If there had been no pandemic and that trend would have continued, the rate last year would have been almost exactly 9.1. Of course, we only live on one timeline, so it is impossible to know what would have happened without a pandemic.

I think there are two conclusions we can likely draw from this data. First, the good news, the rate at which people are dying in America is pretty much back to normal. The bad news is that during 2020-2022, around 1.4 million more people died than we would have expected had there been no pandemic. The CDC estimates that about 1.2 million died from COVID. Of course, there is some disagreement whether in all the deaths the CDC attributed to COVID it was the principal cause of death or only a contributing cause because so many who died from the disease had multiple co-morbidities. Regardless, there was an increase in fatalities that exceeded the number the disease caused. 

I suspect that detailed study would show that many of these fatalities were caused by unintended consequences of our reaction to the virus. We know that drug overdoses are up during the pandemic and that certain chronic drivers of fatalities, like cardiovascular issues and cancer, were up due to a decline in routine early detection. In less developed countries, collateral fatalities were almost certainly even higher.  This UN report estimated that 43 million people in Africa were at risk of extreme famine because of the fallout from the pandemic in May 2022.

It is unquestionable that the coronavirus pandemic exacted an enormous toll on our country and the entire world, and not just in the additional fatalities it caused. Much of the damage was attributable to the lethality and the transmissibility of the disease. But a great deal of the damage was also due to our reactions to it. Frequently, our leaders reacted to the pandemic on imperfect information, which often led to misguided “cures” that were worse than disease. I have been reluctant to criticize actions that were taken in the heat of the moment, but hopefully, the next time we face a similar crisis, our leaders will be somewhat more cognizant of the potential harm from the unintended consequences of the policy decisions.


This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

This article first appeared on the Magnolia Tribune and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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