Life expectancy in the United States dropped a staggering one year during the first half of 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic caused its first wave of deaths, according to health officials.
Minorities suffered the biggest impact, with Black Americans losing nearly three years and Hispanics, nearly two years, according to preliminary estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“This is a huge decline,” said Robert Anderson, who oversees the numbers for the CDC. “You have to go back to World War II, the 1940s, to find a decline like this.”
Other health experts say it shows the profound impact of Covid-19, not just on deaths directly due to infection but also from heart disease, cancer and other conditions.
“What is really quite striking in these numbers is that they only reflect the first half of the year … I would expect that these numbers would only get worse,” said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, a health equity researcher and dean at the University of California, San Francisco.
This is the first time the CDC has reported on life expectancy from early, partial records; more death certificates from that period may yet come in. It’s already known that 2020 was the deadliest year in US history, with deaths topping 3 million for the first time.
As a group, Hispanics in the US have had the most longevity and still do. Black people now lag white people by six years in life expectancy, reversing a trend that had been bringing their numbers closer since 1993.
Between 2019 and the first half of 2020, life expectancy decreased 2.7 years for Black people, to 72. It dropped 1.9 years for Hispanics, to 79.9, and 0.8 years for white people, to 78. The preliminary report did not analyze trends for Asian or Native Americans.
Not enough use of masks, early reliance on drugs such as hydroxychloroquine, “which turned out to be worthless,” and other missteps meant many Americans died needlessly, cancer specialist and public health professor at Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Otis Brawley said.
Overall, the drop in life expectancy is more evidence of “our mishandling of the pandemic,” Brawley said.
“Going forward, we need to practice the very basics” such as hand-washing, physical distancing and vaccinating as soon as possible to get prevention back on track, he said.