California saw nearly 20% more deaths since 2020, and COVID alone can’t explain it
Three years after the first COVID cases were detected in the Bay Area, a vexing question persists that can no longer be explained by the terrifying arrival of a deadly novel coronavirus: Why are so many people still dying?
Since 2020, California has recorded 130,000 more deaths than in the three previous years, a nearly 20% increase in mortality, the largest sustained spike in more than a century, and the reversal of a decades-long trend of decreasing death rates. In essence, experts say, that’s 130,000 more burials, cremations, viewings and funerals than there should have been.
Those lost lives, referred to as “excess deaths” in the public health world, are the number of deaths over what could be expected based on historical data and demographic trends. COVID19 — which was first confirmed in California in late January 2020 — is the obvious culprit for the bulk of them. But officially the virus is blamed for just under 100,000 of those deaths. So why did the other 30,000 Californians die? No single cause explains the momentous change, according to the California Department of Public Health. Since early 2020, aside from COVID, the Golden State has seen the biggest rise in causes of death in drug overdoses, Alzheimer’s disease and alcohol-related conditions followed by hypertensive heart disease, ischemic heart disease, stroke, diabetes, kidney diseases, road injury and homicide.
Nationally, Robert Anderson, chief of the Mortality Statistics Branch at the National Center for Health Statistics, is seeing much the same.
“It’s those non-COVID excess deaths that are really tricky,” he said.
“The pandemic certainly is a factor,” Anderson said, “Whether it’s the virus itself (exacerbating other health problems) or whether it’s other factors related to the pandemic, it’s hard to know for sure.”
While the reasons might be complex, you don’t need a fancy formula to see that more people than normal are dying. In California, those excess deaths started early in 2020, and — except for a few weeks — have continued the last three years to exceed the upper limit of what was expected, based on historical trends. California’s deadliest week in the past six years was the first week of 2021, when 11,908 people died in the Golden State. COVID was responsible for 4,858 of those deaths, according to the state health department. But that left an additional 7,050 people dying from other causes.
During that week, ending Jan. 8, 2021, the number of reported deaths was nearly double the number of expected deaths, according to estimates published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even if you subtract the record-high official COVID deaths, more people died in California that week than even the deadliest week in the three years before 2020.