COVID-19 and America’s dismal slump in life expectancy

For the first time in decades, life expectancy in the United States has declined by a full year — and more, for African Americans and Latinos — due to the extraordinary death toll of the coronavirus.

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A patient enters a COVID-19 testing site in Seattle on Feb. 13, 2021.

A patient enters a COVID-19 testing site in Seattle on Feb. 13, 2021.

David Ryder/Getty Images

Our country is fast approaching the grim milestone of 500,000 COVID-19 deaths, more evidence to all but the most fact-resistant of just how deadly the pandemic has been.

The coronavirus is not “just like the flu,” as some on the right, eager to downplay the seriousness of it all, have claimed.

Thursday brought yet more alarming evidence of that truth. A new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report found that COVID-19 has been deadly enough to drive down U.S. life expectancy by a full year, a decline experts say America hasn’t experienced in decades.

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That’s how serious this pandemic has been, generating a lethal impact approaching that of World War II, when life expectancy fell by 2.9 years. We cannot afford to dismiss that truth even as we see a light at the end of the tunnel with vaccine availability.

Due to the extraordinary number of excess deaths from COVID-19, the average American now can expect to live 77.8 years, down from 78.8 in 2019, the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics found. Its analysis is based on mortality data from the first six months of 2020, so the full impact of the pandemic’s death toll has yet to be seen.

Life expectancy is a basic measure of population health, and researchers found a similar decline — of 1.13 years — in another report published in early February in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Both reports, as well, found racial disparities. African Americans and Latinos have suffered far higher rates than white Americans of death and severe illness from COVID-19, and the CDC report found that life expectancy for those groups declined by 2.7 years and 1.9 years respectively.

Black men fared worst: Their life expectancy fell by 3 years.

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“I knew it was going to be large, but when I saw those numbers, I was like, ‘Oh my God,’” Elizabeth Arias, the lead author of the CDC report, told the New York Times regarding the racial disparity. The National Academy of Sciences report found similar numbers.

For all the alarming news here, it’s worth keeping in mind that as the pandemic eases, life expectancy should rise once again.

Light at the end of the tunnel, indeed.

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