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COVID Accounts for Just Half of Virginia’s Excess Deaths

New data from a VCU professor's study illuminates the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Twenty percent more United States residents died between March and August 2020 than would have in a non-pandemic year, according to a new study from the Journal of the American Medical Association - but only two-thirds of those deaths have been attributed to COVID-19.

Dr. Steven Woolf, a VCU professor, led the project.

“This study was looking at excess deaths,” Woolf said. “And this refers to how many more deaths have occurred during the pandemic than we would normally expect in a typical year.”

Virginia saw 16% more deaths this year than in a non-pandemic year, putting the commonwealth slightly below the national average.

There were about 2,300 reported COVID-19 deaths in the time frame studied, but the study found the commonwealth had over 4,500 excess deaths in the same period.

That means for every Virginian that we know died of COVID-19 between March and August, another one died that wouldn’t have in a non-pandemic year.

Woolf said there are a few possible explanations for this. It’s to be expected that some of those excess deaths were caused by COVID-19 and will eventually be counted as such, because health metrics often take time to refine. But other deaths were likely caused by disruptions in medical care.

The study backed up concerns that patients with long-term health issues are struggling in the pandemic. Researchers found that mortality rates for heart disease, dementia and Alzheimer’s all went up at certain times following the pandemic outbreak. And local data shows that emergency room visits for drug overdoses skyrocketed this year.

“These increases in admissions for drug overdoses again suggest that there are effects the pandemic is having on mental health and substance abuse,” Woolf said.

Still, Woolf says at least some of the deaths attributed to other illnesses could have been caused by COVID-19 instead.

“We know both phenomena are in play right now,” Woolf said.

The study is also notable for its national implications. Woolf says their research revealed clear trends in the epidemic’s destruction according to how states were hit - and how they reacted.

States that were hit early - like New York - had huge spikes in COVID-19 deaths in March, but many of them were able to get it under control with aggressive measures.

“Their epidemic curve looks like a capital ‘A.’ It spiked in mid-April, and then they did a good job of bringing it down and getting it to baseline,” he said.

Woolf also pointed to states, like Florida, that lifted pandemic restrictions early.

“What we saw in those states is a different kind of curve, it didn’t look like a capital ‘A.’ Instead, what we saw was this increase in deaths that really became quite significant in June and July, and stretched out over a period of months,” he said.

"Virginia’s pandemic curve looks better than those states", Woolf said. But he says no state’s response has been perfect.

“We do need to worry about all the people with other health problems who died because of inadequate care,” Woolf said. “That has important policy implications.”

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.
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