COVID-19 leading cause of death ranking

Note: For our prior analysis on COVID-19 mortality preventable by vaccines, click here.

This brief examines how deaths from COVID-19 rank among other leading causes of death in the U.S. At the time of this brief, COVID-19 is on track to be the third leading cause of death in the U.S. for the third year in a row. COVID-19 claimed 340,000 lives in 2020, 475,000 lives in 2021, and so far, has taken 230,000 lives in 2022 through September.

We find that nearly as many people died of COVID-19 in January and February of 2022 as the typical deaths from heart disease, though COVID-19 deaths have declined since then. We also find that in January and February of 2022, COVID-19 was the number 1 cause of death for people ages 45-84 and among at least the top 4 leading causes of death for other age groups (age five and up). The number of COVID-19 deaths has since declined, but the pandemic remains a leading cause of death in the U.S.

COVID-19 is the #3 cause of death in the U.S. thus far in 2022


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.

So far in 2022 in the U.S., COVID-19 is the number 3 cause of death (through September). However, about half of COVID-19 deaths in 2022 thus far occurred in January and February of the year.

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In October 2022, COVID-19 ranks #6 among leading causes of death


Over the course of the pandemic, COVID-19 has frequently ranked among the top 3 leading causes of death in the U.S. Looking at data on deaths from COVID-19 and other causes, in October 2022, COVID-19 took the lives of about 344 people per day on average. By comparison, heart disease, which is typically the number one cause of death in the U.S. each year, led to the death of about 2,000 people per day and cancer claimed nearly 1,700 lives per day, on average, based on data from 2022.

Based on average daily deaths, COVID-19 was the number 6 cause of death in October 2022 below accidents, strokes, and chronic lower respiratory disease. COVID-19 daily average deaths in the month were closely followed by diabetes and Alzheimer disease. Since deaths from other leading causes below accidents are fairly close, COVID-19’s rank tends to fluctuate. COVID-19 ranked #5 in September 2022, closely tied with number of average daily deaths from strokes.

For the period January through September 2022, COVID-19 has ranked in top 3 leading causes of death for ages 55 and older


The chart above shows how COVID-19 compares among the top 10 leading causes of death for each age group 5 and older for cumulative COVID-19 deaths in January through September 2022. To rank COVID-19 among other leading causes of death by age groups, we looked at COVID-19 deaths for each age group and the most recent available data for other “rankable” age-specific leading causes for the period of January to September 2022. The number of deaths caused by COVID-19 are available for recent months, but the number of deaths from accidents, suicides, and homicides in the most recent months are incomplete. Therefore, for each age group, we assume the number of deaths that arose from these other leading causes were similar to those in the first 9 months of 2021. We do not include children under age 5 in age-specific COVID ranking because there are relatively few deaths from any cause, meaning that the rankings of leading causes in each month can be influenced by even a small change in the number of deaths from a given cause.

COVID-19 was the number 1 cause of death for people ages 45 years and over in January 2022, but has since fallen in ranking


COVID-19 was among the top 4 leading causes of death for all groups age 5 and older in January 2022. COVID-19 claimed 2,045 lives in January 2022 and 2,194 lives in February 2022, which is more than the number of deaths from heart disease in January 2019. (Since COVID-19 emerged, the number of deaths attributed to heart disease has tended to increase at the same time COVID-19 deaths surge).

In January 2022, COVID-19 ranked as the number 1 cause of death for people age 45 and over as well as number 2 for people ages 25-44. Among leading causes of death, COVID-19 was number 3 among children age 5-14 and number 4 among young people age 15-24.

However, starting in March and continuing through most of the year, COVID-19 has fallen in ranking as a leading cause of death across age groups. In September 2022, COVID-19 ranked as the 5th or 6th leading cause of death for elderly people in the U.S., and the 8th or 9th leading cause for most other age groups.

Discussion

COVID-19 is on track to be the third leading cause of death in 2022, just as it was in 2021 and 2020, even with much higher primary series vaccination, in part because booster rates have been low. COVID-19 deaths tend to ebb and flow in waves. However, deaths have spiked in both winters since the virus emerged, so, despite a plateau in COVID-19 deaths in recent months, it is possible there will be another surge this winter. How big a winter surge in infections might be is uncertain, and the extent to which it translates into larger numbers of deaths will likely depend on booster uptake in the coming months.

Methods

We used the KFF COVID-19 Tracker data through November 4, 2022 for average daily and monthly total COVID-19 deaths in the United States for all ages. For data on deaths due to other “rankable” leading causes of death for all ages, we used CDC monthly provisional and weekly counts for select causes of death. Heart disease deaths were combined for all circulatory diseases except stroke. Chronic respiratory or respiratory represents chronic lower respiratory disease. Other respiratory includes other diseases of the lungs such as acute and lower respiratory disease. Stroke represents cerebrovascular disease. 

For age-specific ranking of COVID-19 among other leading causes of death, we used CDC provisional COVID-19 deaths data by age and month. For other leading causes, we used CDC provisional death counts for other leading causes summed for each month through September 2022 where available. For remaining rankable leading causes, we used CDC Wonder data for average monthly death counts by age group in 2020.

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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