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The Present

Not just COVID: mortality rates are up from homicides, drug overdoses, accidents

Some of these trends may be due, in part, to the lockdown.

Photo: krisana / Adobe Stock

Key Takeaways
  • Mortality rates from drug overdoses, homicides, and unintentional injuries increased since the pandemic began.
  • Surprisingly, the suicide rate was below expectations.
  • Cancer deaths may increase in coming years due to delayed diagnosis and reduced treatment.

    In the U.S. the COVID pandemic cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Most deaths were directly attributable to the virus, but a substantial number were caused through the exacerbation of chronic social problems.

    A catastrophic increase in drug overdoses

    For instance, the CDC recently announced that drug overdose deaths last year jumped 30 percent from 2019, the worst single-year increase ever recorded. In 2020, there were roughly 93,000 overdose deaths, with 48 out of 50 states experiencing an increase. The New York Timesreported:

    “Several grim records were set: the most drug overdose deaths in a year; the most deaths from opioid overdoses; the most overdose deaths from stimulants like methamphetamine; the most deaths from the deadly class of synthetic opioids known as fentanyls.”

    While drug overdose deaths — particularly from fentanyl — have been a problem for several years, the lockdown worsened drug use nationwide.

    Photo: Igor Normann / Adobe Stock

    Homicides and accidents

    Unfortunately, there was a notable increase in other causes of death, as well. A new paper in JAMA shows that from March to August 2020, homicides and unintentional injuries were higher than expected. The only good news is that deaths by suicide were lower than expected, a particularly surprising finding given that mental health issues skyrocketed during the pandemic.

    To arrive at their conclusions, the authors investigated cause-specific mortality rates from January 2015 to February 2020. This allowed them to calculate an “expected” number of deaths from March to August 2020, which were then compared to the observed number of deaths during the first six months of the pandemic.

    If the COVID pandemic had not occurred, the authors expected 1,404,634 Americans to die in the six months from March to August 2020. In reality, 1,661,271 died, an excess of 256,637 deaths. Of these, 174,334 were due to COVID-19, leaving 82,303 excess deaths in need of an explanation. Drug overdoses, homicides, and unintentional injuries accounted for many of them.

    The authors speculated that drug overdose deaths and homicides may have increased due to economic stress. Also, treatment programs for substance abuse may have been disrupted.

    Blame COVID for cancer, too

    The pandemic will continue to shape cause-specific mortality in unexpected ways. According to new research in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, there will be 2,487 excess breast cancer deaths by 2030 due to decreased screening, delayed diagnosis, and reduced treatment, representing a 0.52 percent cumulative increase over the number of expected breast cancer deaths.

    Hospitals have also reported an increase in admissions for alcohol-related liver disease. USC has experienced a 30 percent uptick since March 2020.

    Society will be dealing with the fallout of COVID for years to come.

    Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter. His most recent book isHero’s Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy.”


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