U.S. Suffered Almost 300,000 Excess Deaths During Coronavirus Pandemic, CDC Reports
Almost 300,000 more Americans have died during the first ten months of the coronavirus pandemic than would be expected in an average year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported Tuesday.
The agency found that there were an estimated 299,028 excess deaths in the U.S. between Jan. 26 and Oct. 3. That's a higher death toll than the 221,078 deaths officially attributed to COVID-19, according to the latest figures from Johns Hopkins University.
"This is one of several studies, and the bottom line is there are far more Americans dying from the pandemic than the news reports would suggest," Dr. Steve Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University who conducted a study along similar lines, told The New York Times.
Excess death studies are valuable for understanding public health threats precisely because deaths from a particular cause may have been undercounted, the CDC explained. In the case of COVID-19, an excess death study will catch cases that have been misdiagnosed or misattributed on the death certificate. Two-thirds of the excess deaths in the study were directly attributed to the coronavirus, but others could have been indirectly caused by the new disease.
"There are many factors that could contribute to an increase in deaths indirectly due to the pandemic, with disruptions to health care being one factor," study author Lauren Rossen, from CDC's National Center for Health Statistics, told Reuters.
For example, Woolf told The New York Times that his study, which looked at excess deaths from March 1 to April 25, found huge increases in deaths from conditions like diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer's.
"It's important for people who have these conditions to not delay or forgo medical care because of their fears of the virus," Woolf said. "In many cases, the danger of not getting care is much greater than the risk of exposure to the virus."
The CDC got their figures by comparing deaths in 2020 every week during the study period with the average deaths for that week from 2015 to 2019. They found that excess deaths have occurred every week in the U.S. since March, peaking in the weeks ending April 11 and August 8.
The study looked at deaths by age group and by race, and found one surprising result. While more older Americans have died of the virus in total numbers, the group that saw the greatest percentage increase in deaths in 2020 was adults aged 25 to 44.
The breakdown by age group was as follows:
- Under 25: two percent decrease
- 25-44: 26.5 percent increase
- 45-64: 14.4 percent increase
- 65-74: 24.1 percent increase
- 75-84: 21.5 percent increase
- Over 85: 14.7 percent increase
The study also confirmed that the pandemic has taken a higher toll on racial minority groups than on white Americans. Hispanic Americans saw the highest percent increase of deaths in 2020 at 53.6 percent. The rest were as follows:
- Asian Americans: 36.6 percent increase
- Other or unknown ethnicity: 34.6 percent increase
- Black Americans: 32.9 percent increase
- Indigenous Americans: 28.9 percent increase
- White Americans: 11.9 percent increase
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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