COVID-19 deaths tied to US life expectancy drop

Hand holding an hourglass
Hand holding an hourglass

Ralf Geithe / iStock

COVID-19 deaths in 2020 led to the biggest life expectancy drop in the United States since World War II, according to a new reports from a federal research group.

In global COVID developments, cases rose for the fourth week in a row, led by the more transmissible BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants, the World Health Organization (WHO) said today in its weekly pandemic update.

Impact from COVID death varied by race

The life expectancy drop was detailed in provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). Life expectancy declined 1.5 years from 2019 to 2020, from 78.8 years in 2019 to 77.3 years in 2020. Life expectancy during that period was the lowest since 2003 and represented the biggest 1-year drop since World War II, when it declined 2.9 years between 1942 and 1943.

COVID deaths contributed 74% to the recent life expectancy decline. Other factors included rises in deaths from accidents or unintentional injuries, part of which included drug overdose deaths, which reached an all-time high in 2020. The CDC said other contributors included homicide, diabetes, and chronic liver disease and cirrhosis.

The team found racial differences in life expectancy declines, with Hispanic Americans, especially males, experiencing the largest decline in 2020. The group typically has longer life expectancy than Black or White Americans.

COVID's role in the life expectancy drop also varied by race. The disease was responsible for 90% of the drop in the Hispanic population, 68% in the White population, and 59% in the Black population.

In another analysis that sized up COVID deaths, a new report from National Institutes of Health (NIH) researchers said prior to Omicron variant circulation, COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death, only topped by heart disease and cancer.

In other US developments:

  • For the week ending Jun 30, children's COVID-19 cases rose over the previous week, with nearly 76,000 reported, according to the latest update from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). The increase comes against the backdrop of a rising proportion of more transmissible BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants and US activity that has holding steady at an elevated level since late May.

  • A new poll from the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 54% of Americans feel that their lives are somewhat the same as before the pandemic, with 12% reporting that they feel completely the same, and 34% saying they are not the same.

  • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today said it revised the emergency use authorization for Paxlovid to allow state-licensed pharmacists to prescribe the drug to eligible patients with certain limitations to allow appropriate patient assessment, such as a review of patient health records for kidney or liver problems and all medications the patient is taking.

Global cases, subvariants rise

At a World Health Organization (WHO) briefing today, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, said new weekly COVID cases have risen nearly 30% over the past 2 weeks, with four of six world regions experiencing rises in the last week.

BA.4 and BA.5 are driving waves in Europe and the Americas, he said, adding that countries like India are seeing a new sublineage called BA.2.75, which the WHO is following.

Tedros warned that reduced testing not only obscures the true picture of virus evolution and disease burden, it also means that new treatments aren't given early enough. Other concerns include lack of access to new treatments by low- and middle-income countries, declining protection from vaccines, and growing numbers of people with long COVID from each pandemic wave.

Regarding people suffering from long-term effects, Tedros said, "This obviously impacts individuals and their families but it also puts an extra burden on health systems, the wider economy and society-at-large."

In its weekly situation report, the WHO said cases rose in the Eastern Mediterranean, South East Asia, Europe, and Western Pacific regions, with more than 4.6 million cases reported last week. The five countries reporting the most cases included France, Germany, Italy, the United States, and Brazil.

Deaths last week declined by 12% but were up in the Eastern Mediterranean and South East Asia regions.

The proportions of BA.4 and BA.5 continue to increase and are responsible for 37% and 52% of sequenced Omicron samples, respectively. The rate of increase for BA.4 is not as high as for BA.5.

Regarding BA.2.75, Soumya Swaminathan, MD, the WHO's chief scientist, said in a Twitter video clip that the subvariant was first identified in India and about 10 other countries and that there are still limited sequences available for analysis. So far, scientists know that it has a few mutations on the receptor binding domain of the spike protein of the virus.

Swaminathan said it's still too early to know if BA.2.75 has immune-evasion properties or produces a more clinically severe illness. "So we have to wait and see and of course we are tracking it," she said, adding that the WHO's technical advisory group on virus evolution is constantly looking at data from around the world.

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