COVID-19 was the third leading killer in the US for 2020

COVID-19 death rates were highest among people of color and people 85 and older.

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New preliminary data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that COVID-19 was the third-leading cause of death in the country last year, behind only heart disease and cancer. 

The CDC analyzed death certificate data and found that the COVID-19 was listed as the underlying cause for about 11.3 percent of all deaths last year—more than 375,000 of the 3.36 million approximate total deaths. For context, heart disease and cancer killed approximately 690,000 and 600,000 respectively. COVID-19 pushed out suicide in the list of top 10 causes of death, and also surpassed others like unintentional injury, stroke, and chronic lower respiratory disease. 

CDC graph shows top 10 causes of death for 2020
The CDC released preliminary data showing the top 10 causes of death in the US for 2020. COVID-19 pushed suicide off the list. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Moreover, the report states that the age-adjusted death rate from 2019 to 2020 increased by 15.9 percent. (Age-adjusted means they take into account the fact that older people are more likely to die than younger people.) The data also show that overall death rates from all causes were highest among non-Hispanic Black individuals and non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native individuals. The COVID-19 death rate was highest among Hispanic people.

When considering age, COVID-19 deaths were highest among individuals 85 and older, and accounted for nearly a third of all COVID-19-related deaths. Age-adjusted rates of COVID-19 deaths were nearly 60 percent higher among males compared to females.

It’s important to note that this report comes with certain limitations. The CDC emphasized that this data is preliminary—investigating causes of death and reviewing the data takes time, and final reports usually come out 11 months after the calendar year ends.  Also, these records don’t include deaths of individuals in US territories or Americans residing in foreign countries. 

[Related: Where are we most likely to catch COVID-19?]

Another major challenge in getting a clear and accurate picture of deaths during the pandemic is the fact death certificate submissions are processed on different timelines in different areas of the country. The CDC also writes that “limited availability of testing for SARS-CoV-2 … at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic might have resulted in an underestimation of COVID-19 associated deaths.”

Regardless, this data gives researchers and policymakers alike an opportunity to see how mortality in the US is shifting because of the pandemic, and design policies and interventions with that information in mind.