COVID-19 continues to be a leading cause of death in the U.S. in August 2021

Note: An updated version of this analysis is here.

COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death across most of 2020, but in December 2020 and early 2021, the illness surged and briefly became the number one leading cause of death in the U.S., far surpassing even cancer and heart disease deaths in those months.

With the rapid uptake in vaccinations in the months when vaccines first became widely available, COVID-19 deaths fell sharply. COVID-19 dropped to the number 8 leading cause of death in the U.S. in July 2021.

However, with the more infectious COVID-19 Delta variant and insufficient vaccination rates, COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are increasing again. Vaccination rates are particularly lagging for younger adults and people living in certain states. As of August 25, 2021, about 73% of adults (ages 18+) in the U.S. have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose.

This brief revisits where deaths from COVID-19 rank among leading causes of death in the U.S. and finds that COVID-19 is again the third leading cause of death in August 2021. We also assess age-specific rank of COVID-19 among leading causes of death in the U.S. and find COVID-19 continues to be a leading cause of death for all ages.

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COVID-19 is once again the 3rd leading cause of death in the U.S. in August 2021


COVID-19 briefly dropped to the number 8 leading cause of death in July 2021. Looking at the most recent data available on deaths from COVID-19 and other causes, we estimate that COVID-19 is currently the number 3 leading cause of death in the U.S. in August 2021. COVID-19 deaths in the chart above represent the average daily deaths through August 24, 2021. Average daily deaths from accidents and suicides are from 2020. Deaths from other causes represent the daily average deaths from January through June of this year.

In August 2021, an average of more than 700 people per day continue to die of COVID-19 in the U.S., even as safe and effective vaccines have been free and widely available to adults in all states and D.C. since early May 2021. Nearly all COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have been among unvaccinated people.

The number of daily deaths from COVID-19 had decreased remarkably from the once staggering 3,066 deaths per day in January 2021 but has started increasing since August 2021. Heart disease, which is typically the number one cause of death in the U.S. each year, leads to the death of about 2,000 Americans per day, and cancer claims about 1,600 American lives per day.

The cumulative count of deaths attributed to COVID-19 in the U.S. is 630,868 from the start of the pandemic through August 25, 2021.

COVID-19 ranking fell to number eight among leading causes of death in July but is back up to number three in August 2021


The chart above combines data on COVID-19 mortality rates from KFF’s tracker with data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on weekly counts of death by jurisdiction and cause of death and monthly provisional counts of deaths by select causes. Deaths from COVID-19 and other causes in the chart above are the average daily deaths in each month of 2020 and 2021. During most of 2020, COVID-19 was one of the top three leading causes of death. As vaccinations increased, average daily deaths from COVID-19 decreased since the peak in January 2021 but have been increasing again recently. COVID-19 rank among leading causes fell to number 8 in July 2021 but is back to number 3 again in August 2021.

COVID-19 was among the top 10 leading causes of death for those ages 15 and over through June 2021


To rank COVID-19 among other leading causes of death by age groups, we looked at COVID-19 deaths in each month of 2021 and the most recent available data for other rankable age-specific leading causes, including congenital disorders and perinatal conditions that mostly affect children.

COVID-19 is among the top 10 leading causes of death across ages 15 years and older even in June 2021. In June 2021, COVID-19 ranked number 7 above diabetes for ages 15-24 years, number 6 above liver disease for ages 25-34 years, number 5 above homicide for ages 35-44, number 4 above liver disease for ages 45-54 years, number 4 above chronic lower respiratory disease for ages 55-64 years, number 5 above diabetes for ages 65-74, and number 7 above accidents for ages 75-84, and number 7 above diabetes for ages over 85 years.

Even among children ages 5-14 COVID-19 was in the top 10 leading causes of death through May 2021, and ranked number 12 in June 2021 above perinatal conditions. Among children ages 1-4, COVID-19 ranked as high as number 7 among leading causes in April 2021.

Due to data reporting lags, age-specific COVID-19 death data are not available for July and August 2021. With the rise in COVID-19 deaths due to the Delta variant in August 2021, COVID-19 ranking likely increased for some age groups during August 2021.

Methods

We used the KFF COVID-19 Tracker data for average daily deaths due to COVID-19 in the United States. August 2021 average deaths from COVID-19 are averaged through August 24, 2021. For data on deaths due to other leading causes, we used monthly provisional counts of death by select causes, 2020-2021.  For other leading causes, we used CDC data for weekly counts of death by select underlying causes of death. For other leading causes from the weekly counts CDC file, only MMWR weeks 1-25 are included in average daily deaths for 2021. The average daily deaths for accidents and suicides are from 2020. Heart disease deaths were combined for all circulatory disease except stroke. Stroke represents cerebrovascular disease. In the second chart, respiratory disease represents chronic lower respiratory disease and the 2020 average daily deaths for accidents are reported.

For age-specific rank of COVID-19 deaths among other leading causes of death, we used CDC provisional COVID-19 deaths data by age for January – June 2021 (as of August 18, 2021) and CDC provisional death counts for other leading causes. Infants were excluded from this analysis as the 15th leading cause of death based on 2019 CDC Wonder data had a monthly average greater than the highest COVID-19 death count for this age group in any given month in 2021.  For age-specific leading causes for which 2021 monthly provisional death counts were not available, we used CDC Wonder data for 2019 for age-specific average monthly death counts.

The Peterson Center on Healthcare and KFF are partnering to monitor how well the U.S. healthcare system is performing in terms of quality and cost.

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