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COVID-19 was responsible for one-in-12 US deaths during the first 20 months of the pandemic

COVID-19 accounted for one in every 12 deaths that occurred in the U.S. during the first 20 months of the pandemic, a new study finds, with the virus being among the top five killers of every age group in the country.

Researchers at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), a part of the National Institutes of Health, found that 5.7 million Americans died of all causes from March 2020 to October 2021. Around 700,000 of those deaths – or eight percent – were directly blamed on COVID-19.

The virus may have caused ancillary deaths, though. Conditions like Alzheimer’s, heart disease and strokes all had increased mortality during the first 18 months of the pandemic, with some believing the virus prevented many patients from seeking medical care causing them to die preventable deaths.

Heart disease and cancer remained the two leading killers of Americans over the time period, just as they were before Covid.

The mortality of virus has significantly dropped since the time of the study data. The more-mild Omicron variant has snuffed out previous versions of the virus since it took over the world at the end of last year. America is currently averaging 101,959 daily infections and 342 deaths every day, both being drops of around 10 percent over the past week.

Researchers, who published their findings Tuesday in JAMA Internal Medicine, gathered national death certificate data from March 2020 to December 2020, and then from January 2021 to October 2021 for the study. 

Across both study periods, heart disease was the leading killer of Americans being responsible for 1.15 million deaths in only 18 months. Cancer came in second, being the listed cause of death on just over one million death certificates. 

Data was also split into 11 different age cohorts. The most Covid vulnerable age group is generally considered to be the elderly. Researchers found that even among this group the virus was not a leading killer.

Heart disease was the far and away the most fatal condition for the oldest of Americans, killing over 400,000 people that were aged 85 or older during the 18 month span. No other condition made up even half as many deaths.

Covid deaths among the most elderly also shrank from 2020 to 2021, with the virus killing just over 100,000 85 and older people during the pandemic’s first nine months, then under 70,000 during the first ten months of 2021.

This is likely because of the COVID-19 vaccines, researchers explain: ‘The increased ranking of COVID-19 as a leading cause of death in some age groups is consistent with a downward age shift in the distribution of COVID-19 deaths in the US in 2021 compared with 2020, perhaps driven by higher COVID-19 vaccination rates in 2021 in the oldest age groups.’

Covid was the third leading killer of Americans aged 65 to 74 over the 20 month period, accounting for around 150,000 deaths during the period. Cancer, which was responsible for 300,000 deaths within the cohort, was the leading killer.

Data gathered for younger age groups was drastically different than it was for their older peers. As expected, the raw death figures were significantly lower – but the causes of death were different as well.

For Americans aged 25 to 34 – one of the youngest cohorts in the study – accidents were by far the leading killer. Nearly 60,000 deaths were caused by an accident during the period. Suicides – which are minimal in older groups – were the second leading killer after accounting for just over 10,000 deaths.

Covid was not among the top five leading killers within the age cohort from March to December 2020, but jumped to fourth from January to October of 2021. 

While it may take months for more recent data to be updated and certified, it is likely that COVID-19 has dropped down the list of killers of Americans as the virus’s overall mortality has dropped in the wake of the Omicron variant’s take over.

Even as case figures have rocketed at some points over the past few months, the number of deaths has remained low – signaling both the more mild nature of the virus and the effectiveness of the widely available COVID-19 vaccines.

The BA.5 variant now makes up 36.6 percent of sequenced cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only trailing BA 2.12.1 (42 percent of sequenced cases) as the nation’s most prevalent strain. BA.4, which shares many of the same traits as BA.5, makes up 15.7 percent of cases.

Every single sequenced cases in the U.S. is a form of the Omicron variant as the highly infectious strain that emerged in late 2021 has snuffed out other versions of the virus.

The once-dominant BA.2 ‘stealth’ variant now makes up less than six percent of Covid cases in the U.S. The original BA.1 Omicron strain is no longer being detected.

The BA.5 (dark green) and BA.4 (light green) now combine to make up more than half of active Covid cases in the U.S.

The BA.5 (dark green) and BA.4 (light green) now combine to make up more than half of active Covid cases in the U.S.

Unlike previous strains of the virus, that have mainly moved east-to-west in the U.S., BA.4 and BA.5 are more prevalent along the west coast than the east coast

Unlike previous strains of the virus, that have mainly moved east-to-west in the U.S., BA.4 and BA.5 are more prevalent along the west coast than the east coast

The strains have alarmed health officials after early data from South Africa showed that natural immunity a person has from a previous infection is not as effective against them as it is other strains.

While their rise has not yet impacted national case figures, some experts are warning that more localized outbreaks are on the way.

In New York City, Dr Jay Varma, former public health advisor to Mayor Bill de Blasio, warns that BA.5 could the reason case figures in the nation’s largest city are no longer declining.

‘The decline of reported [COVID-19] cases in NYC has stopped. Reported cases are at a high plateau, which means actual transmission is very high when you account for the >20x under-counting. This is likely the beginning of a BA.5 wave,’ he said in a tweet.

According to CDC data, BA.5 makes up nearly one-in-three cases in the New York and New Jersey region. BA.4 makes up nearly 12 percent of cases while BA 2.12.1 remains dominant.

Unlike usual Covid strains, which take root along the east coast before spreading west over time, these two strains have taken root on the other side of the country first.

BA.5 makes up 36 percent of sequenced cases along the west coast and 38 percent in the Pacific Northwest. It is most prevalent in in the Dust Bowl, where it makes up 41 percent of sequenced cases and the southwest, where it is at 40 percent.

New strains that break the general rules of the pandemic – that once a person is infected they can not catch the virus again for some time – change the calculus of the virus response.