According to a new preliminary report from CDC, COVID-19 deaths in the United States dropped by almost 50% from 2021 to 2022 and are now at their lowest point since the pandemic.
For the report, researchers analyzed provisional U.S. death certificate data from the National Center for Health Statistics' (NCHS) National Vital Statistics System. Because the data is provisional, there is a chance that certain rates may change when the final data is released later this year.
In 2022, there were roughly 3.3 million deaths from all causes in the United States — a 5.3% decline from the number of deaths that occurred in 2021. The three leading causes of death were heart disease (699,659), cancer (607,790), and unintentional injuries (218,064), which includes car accidents and drug overdoses.
COVID-19 was the fourth-leading cause of death in 2022 after two years as the third-leading cause. According to CDC estimates, COVID-19 was the underlying cause in 186,702 deaths and a contributing factor in an additional 58,284 deaths.
Compared to 2021, there was a 47% decrease in COVID-19 deaths in 2022. The COVID-19 death rate in the United States declined from 115.6 per 100,000 people in 2021 to 61.3 per 100,000 people in 2022.
Overall, COVID-19 death rates were highest among adults ages 85 and older, men, American Indian and Alaskan Native people, and Black people. By geographic region, the South had the highest COVID-19 death rates at 69.3 per 100,000 people. It was closely followed by the Southeast, which saw 65.5 COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 people.
However, even with the decline in COVID-19 deaths, the researchers note that the virus is still killing many Americans. So far this year, 35,000 people have died from COVID-19.
"The death rate went down by a lot, but we also want to emphasize we're not out of the woods here," said Robert Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch at NCHS and one of the report's authors. "There are still a lot of people who died, and we're still seeing deaths in 2023 as well."
Although Anderson said he expects the overall number of COVID-19 deaths to continue to decline this year, it could still exceed 100,000. "It looks like the number will continue to decline, but it is still not trivial," he said.
As the United States prepares to end the COVID-19 public health emergency on May 11, weekly data suggests that COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in the country may be dropping to near lows.
Compared to this past winter, which saw an average of 42,000 COVID-19 cases a week, federal data reports that the seven-day average for COVID-19 cases in the United States was around 9,950, as of April 28.
With cases declining and more immunity from vaccines and infection largely protecting people from severe outcomes, hospitalizations have also begun to decline.
For example, Massachusetts recently reported that the number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized across the state dropped to its lowest point in over a year. Two major hospitals, Tufts Medical Center and Boston Medical Center, also reported zero COVID-19 patients for the first time since March 2020.
"We've been in the trenches for three years, and it's so amazing to get to this moment," said Shira Doron, an epidemiologist at Tufts. "It's great to see, even if it's only for the day."
"Under really unprecedented times, everybody came to work every day despite the danger," Doron said. "Everybody did their job and worked harder than ever before."
Similarly, Gabriela Andujar Vazquez, an infectious disease physician and associate hospital epidemiologist at Tufts, said the hospital having no COVID-19 patients was "a great achievement" and that it "speaks to the multiple public health efforts that, over time, have led us to this point where we are seeing less severity of disease."
As hospitalizations decline, so have deaths from COVID-19. According to CDC data, 1,052 COVID-19 deaths were reported for the week ending April 26, much lower than a previous low of 1,7000 deaths observed during a week in the summer of 2021.
However, because many states are currently reporting less complete data, it is difficult to determine whether the recent declines in deaths truly mark a new low. The lowest number of recorded COVID-19 deaths occurred during the week ending April 23, 2022, which saw 1,348 deaths or around 193 deaths a day.
Going forward, Andujar Vazquez said it's likely COVID-19 cases will rise and fall again, but she's hopeful that hospitalizations will remain below peak levels seen in the past.
"It's a respiratory illness that will be affecting individuals for a foreseeable future," she said, "and we have to continue to improve in our surveillance and improve in testing, just like we do with other respiratory illnesses — influenza, RSV, other viruses." (Achenbach, Washington Post, 5/4; Reed, Axios, 5/5; Rabin, New York Times, 5/4; Putka, MedPage Today, 5/4; Lin II/Money, Los Angeles Times, 5/4; Ahmad et al., Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 5/5; Choi, The Hill, 5/4; Sobey, Boston Herald, 5/2; McCluskey, WBUR, 5/3; Kamp, Wall Street Journal, 5/3)
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