Note: An updated version of this analysis is here.
COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death across all 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 recent months, COVID-19 deaths have fallen sharply. As of June 30, 2021, about 66% of adults in the U.S. have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose. However, as we approach the Fourth of July, it appears likely the Biden Administration will fall short of its target to vaccinate 70% of adults with at least one dose, with vaccination rates particularly lagging for younger adults and people living in certain states.
COVID-19 is currently the 7th leading cause of death in the U.S. in June 2021
Though no longer the number one leading cause of death, COVID-19 remains in the top ten leading causes of death, even in June 2021. Looking at the most recent data on deaths from COVID-19 and other causes, we estimate that COVID-19 is currently the number 7 leading cause of death in the U.S. COVID-19 deaths in the chart above represent the average daily deaths in June 2021. Deaths from other causes represent the weighted daily mortality rate averaged over MMWR (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report) weeks 1-16 during this year.
In June 2021, an average of more than 300 people per day continue to die of COVID-19 in the U.S., even as vaccines are readily available to most of the population. Nearly all COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have been among unvaccinated people.
The number of daily deaths from COVID-19 has decreased remarkably from the once staggering 3,136 deaths per day just a few months ago in January 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 604,656 from the start of the pandemic through June 30, 2021.
Not long ago, COVID-19 was the number one cause of death in the U.S.
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. 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 have increased, deaths from COVID-19 have decreased since the peak in January 2021.
In a recent KFF poll, half of unvaccinated adults said the number of cases is so low that there is no need for more people to get the shot. If vaccination rates plateau, the U.S. could continue to see COVID-19 among the top ten leading causes of death, despite the availability of safe and highly effective vaccines.
We used the KFF COVID-19 Tracker data for average daily deaths from COVID-19 in the United States. June 2021 average deaths from COVID-19 are averaged through June 28, 2021. We used CDC data for deaths due to other leading causes. This CDC dataset does not include deaths due to accidents (which, before the pandemic, were typically the third leading cause of death, after heart disease and cancer), nor does it include suicides (which were typically the tenth leading cause of death before the pandemic). To avoid double-counting, the CDC dataset excludes deaths confirmed to have an underlying cause of COVID-19. For the first chart, only 2021 MMWR weeks 1-16 are included in average daily deaths. For the monthly chart, we calculated the daily average deaths for other causes for each MMWR week ending within the month. December 2020 average daily deaths for other causes includes MMWR week 53.
The CDC data on other leading causes combines Alzheimer disease and dementia deaths. However, in the United States, Alzheimer disease alone is considered a “rankable” cause in determining leading causes of death. We calculated the percentage of deaths from Alzheimer disease alone as a share of Alzheimer and dementia disease deaths using 2019 CDC Wonder data. We then applied this percentage to Alzheimer and dementia death counts available in the CDC data for 2020 and 2021 to estimate deaths from Alzheimer disease alone.
Death counts due to accidents are not available for 2020 or 2021, and therefore, accident deaths are based on daily average deaths in 2019. Heart disease deaths were combined for all circulatory disease except stroke. Respiratory disease represents chronic lower respiratory disease.
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.