COVID-19 was the third most common cause of death in US last year

The CDC's report comes days after Trump's ex-coronavirus task force head said he caused up to 400,000 deaths

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published April 1, 2021 8:13PM (EDT)

Coronavirus COVID-19 (Getty Images)
Coronavirus COVID-19 (Getty Images)

COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in the United States in 2020, a year defined in many ways by the deadly pandemic.

This is the conclusion reached by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in a report released on Wednesday. (The statistics are provisional, meaning that they are only based on preliminary information provided to the agency from state governments and could later need to be updated.) The CDC estimated that roughly 375,000 people died in the United States within the year 2020 as a result of COVID-19. The only illnesses to cause more fatalities were heart disease, which led to roughly 690,000 deaths, and cancer, which resulted in roughly 598,000 deaths. In the process of rising to the top 10 causes of death, COVID-19 bumped suicide off of the list, which was the 11th most common cause of death in 2020.

The CDC also found that the COVID-19 death rate was highest among Hispanics, while overall death rates were highest among non-Hispanic African Americans and non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native populations. These demographic trends are important, the report argues, because they can provide the agency with useful guidelines about how to address the pandemic going forward.

"Provisional death estimates provide an early indication of shifts in mortality trends," the CDC explained. "Timely and actionable data can guide public health policies and interventions for populations experiencing higher numbers of deaths that are directly or indirectly associated with the COVID-19 pandemic."

In announcing the report, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told journalists that "the data should serve again as a catalyst for each of us to continue to do our part to drive down cases and reduce the spread of COVID-19 and get people vaccinated as quickly as possible."

She added that, "Sadly, based on the current state of the pandemic, these impacts have remained in 2021 where we continue to see that communities of color account for an outsize portions of these deaths."

Walensky, and President Joe Biden's administration more generally, have repeatedly expressed concern that Republican-led states are easing COVID-19 restrictions too soon and will prolong the pandemic by doing so. Their fears appear to have been backed up by a report earlier this week that COVID-19 infection rates rose by 16% last week compared to the previous week.

"I am really worried about reports that more states are rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from COVID-19," Walensky told reporters at the time.

Dr. Deborah Birx, who led Trump's coronavirus task force, publicly implied that the coronavirus death toll might have been lower if not for President Trump's public health policies. Birx told CNN on Sunday that she believes the former president's unwillingness to follow consensus public health recommendations could have cost up to 400,000 lives.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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