COVID-19 Now Leading Cause of Death in the United States

In January 2021, the number of deaths from COVID-19 increased so rapidly that it has clearly become the number one cause of death in the U.S., with an average of more than 3,000 people per day dying of COVID-19 in the U.S. as of Jan. 26. That number is significantly higher than other leading causes of death and is nearly 50% higher than the next leading cause. Heart disease, which is typically the number one cause of death in the U.S. each year, leads to the death of about 2,000 Americans per day, and cancer claims about 1,600 American lives per day.

The chart above combines data on COVID-19 mortality rates from KFF’s tracker with data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) on weekly counts of death by jurisdiction and cause of death. COVID-19 deaths in the chart represent the average daily deaths in January 2021 (as of January 26, 2021). Deaths from other causes represent the weighted daily mortality rate averaged over MMWR weeks 1-52 during the year 2020. This CDC dataset does not include deaths due to accidents (which, before the pandemic, were typically the third leading cause of death, after heart disease and cancer), nor does it include suicides (which were typically the tenth leading cause of death before the pandemic). To avoid double-counting, the dataset excludes deaths confirmed to have an underlying cause of COVID-19. The chart could, however, understate the severity of COVID-19 because some of those deaths may have been misclassified as other causes. There were many more deaths in 2020 than expected, and confirmed COVID-19 cases only accounted for about three in four excess deaths.

With two vaccines available now in the United States that are more than 90% effective at preventing illness from the virus, these data are just one more way of illustrating the urgency of expediting COVID-19 vaccination. While the number of new COVID-19 cases appears to have taken a turn for the better in the latter half of January, it is difficult to know what the future holds, particularly with the potential spread of new variants.


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