COVID-19 is the number one cause of death in the U.S. in early 2021

Note: An updated version of this analysis is here.

In 2020, COVID-19 became the third leading cause of death in the United States, exceeded only by cancer and heart disease. However, that ranking includes months in early 2020 when the pandemic had not fully taken hold in the U.S. The death toll from COVID-19 has risen sharply, particularly since the November and December holidays.

Looking at the most recent data on deaths from COVID-19 and other causes, it becomes clear that COVID-19 is currently the number one cause of death in the United States. As of February 20, 2021, an average of more than 2,400 people per day died of COVID-19 in the U.S. during February 2021. That number is staggering compared to other leading causes of death and is nearly 20% higher than the next leading cause. 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 497,648 through February 20, 2021, and is expected to exceed 500,000 in the next few days.

The chart above combines data on COVID-19 mortality rates from KFF’s tracker with data from Center for Disease Control (CDC) on weekly counts of death by jurisdiction and cause of death. COVID-19 deaths in the chart represent the average daily deaths thus far in February 2021 (as of February 20, 2021). Deaths from other causes represent the weighted daily mortality rate averaged over MMWR weeks 1-52 during the year 2020. 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 dataset excludes deaths confirmed to have an underlying cause of COVID-19. The chart could, however, understate the severity of COVID-19 because some of those deaths may have been misclassified as other causes. There were many more deaths in 2020 than expected, and confirmed COVID-19 cases only accounted for about two in three excess deaths.  

The current wave of COVID-19 has been described as more of a tsunami. The 3,076 COVID-19 deaths per day in January 2021 represent a 29% increase over December. December 2020 may have been the first month in which the COVID-19 mortality rate exceeded that of heart disease, though the margin is narrow and that data may still be preliminary due to reporting delays. In January 2021, the number of deaths from COVID-19 increased so rapidly that it has clearly become the number one cause of death in the U.S. These data are just one more way of illustrating the urgency of expediting COVID-19 vaccination. President Biden has developed a plan to increase vaccine supply, including through use of the Defense Production Act and by purchasing additional doses. In the meantime, other public health measures are crucial to reduce transmission. The number of new COVID-19 cases appears to have taken a turn for the better in the latter half of January, which could lead to declines in the number of new deaths several weeks from now. However, it is difficult to know what the future holds, particularly with the potential spread of new variants.

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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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