COVID-19 leading cause of death ranking

Note: For our 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. We find that nearly as many people died of COVID-19 in February 2022 as the typical deaths from heart disease. We also find that in January 2022, COVID-19 was the number 1 cause of death for people age 45-84 and in the top 4 leading causes of death for other age groups. The number of COVID-19 deaths has declined so far in March, but the disease remains a leading cause of death, generally exceeding 1,000 deaths per day.

Over the course of the pandemic, COVID-19 has frequently ranked among the top 3 leading causes of death in the U.S., with the exception of the summer of 2021. Looking at data on deaths from COVID-19 and other causes, in February 2022, COVID-19 took the lives of about 2,198 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 2,400 people per day, and cancer claimed nearly 1,700 lives per day, on average based on data from January 2022. A majority of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have been among unvaccinated people.

COVID-19 has ranked among the top 3 causes of death, except in the summer of 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. Looking at average daily deaths for each month, deaths from some non-COVID causes—for example, heart disease deaths—sometimes increased with surges in COVID-19 deaths. This could be in part directly or indirectly related to COVID.

COVID-19 was the number 1 cause of death for people ages 45-84 years in January 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. The number of deaths caused by COVID-19 are available for recent months, but the number of deaths from other causes in the most recent months are incomplete. Therefore, for each age group, we assume the number of deaths that arose from non-COVID-19 leading causes were an average of the first half of 2021 (or the most recent data year available). 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.

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COVID-19 was among the top 4 leading causes of death for all groups 5 and older in January 2022. In January 2022, COVID-19 ranked as the number 1 cause of death for people age 45-84 as well as number 2 for people ages 25-44 and 85 and older. Among children age 5-14 and young people age 15-24, COVID-19 was the number 4 leading cause of death.

The chart below shows how COVID-19 compares among the top 5 leading causes of death for each age group 5 and older in January 2022.

In January 2022, more people ages 15 and older died of COVID-19 than of cancer


Methods

We used the KFF COVID-19 Tracker data through February 28, 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. Stroke represents cerebrovascular disease. In the first chart, respiratory disease represents chronic lower respiratory 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 averaged per month from January through June 2021. 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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