COVID-19 has contributed to a significant increase in premature deaths across demographics, which will have a substantial societal impact for years to come, according to new data that attempts to quantify the pandemic's community and economic impact.
About 1.9 million years of life have been lost from April to August, which is a 13% increase over the historical average, according to a Health Care Cost Institute analysis that compared obituary and life expectancy data over the past five years to recent data. For example, if a person dies around their peak earning potential at age 50, and life expectancy is 75, then the years of life lost is 25. Families and communities are left with the emotional and financial toll of losing a loved one.
In April, deaths among seniors accounted for 80% of years of life lost. That fell to 36% in June as more working-age adults died prematurely. The mortality data factors in more than just COVID-19 deaths, researchers noted.
The data illustrate that COVID-19 impacts more than just seniors, said Andy Fenelon, co-author of the report and assistant professor of public policy and sociology at Penn State University.
"COVID is having large effects on younger adults who will feel the effects longer," he said. "Excess years of life lost is important for thinking about not only the broader economic impact but the impact on families who lose a parent or primary wage earner."
In August, working-age adults accounted for 48% of years of life lost. Specifically, adults 20 to 44 years old accounted for 25% (19% males, 5% females) and adults 45 to 64 years old accounted for 23% (13% males and 25% females).
"Years of life lost is so overwhelmingly sad," said Terry Fulmer, president of the John A. Hartford Foundation. "This shows us that none of us can let our guard's down—we have to assume universal cautions, assume that everyone needs to wear a mask and that we maintain social distance until there's a vaccine, which we need to make sure is efficacious across all age groups."
States and the federal government should revisit policies including stay-at-home orders and universal masks, HCCI researchers said.
"I hope that when we think about the next COVID relief package, we are making sure that families are considered, particularly children that will suffer a long-tail impact," said Eva DuGoff, a co-author of the report and a senior managing consultant at the Berkeley Research Group and assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Maryland. The data indicate that there may be a surge in the fall and winter, she added.
With that in mind, young adults who have older parents and grandparents should be cautious if they visit family for the holidays, said John Hargraves, co-author of the report and HCCI's director of data strategy and senior researcher.
"We are not sure about the long-term implications of COVID on health and productivity," he said. "It's important to keep in mind COVID patients who may be more vulnerable to chronic diseases and for families who are left behind—when we do see drops in infection and mortality rates there are still long-term consequences."
Working-age adults are more vulnerable to the virus, in part, due to systemic racial inequities, said Dr. Talia Swartz, the associate dean for MD/PhD education at Mount Sinai's Icahn School of Medicine.
That sentiment was supported by another new HCCI report that found that people of color are more likely to contract COVID-19.
In April, the COVID-19 positivity rate among Black and Hispanic patients was six-times higher than white patients in the New York Tri-State area. Similarly, in June and July, that rate was three-times higher among Hispanic patients than white patients in the Deep South.
The systemic lack of economic opportunities and access to healthcare, among other unjust social determinants of health, creates inequalities that jeopardize Black and Hispanic people, HCCI researchers said.
Worker protections that ensure appropriate PPE levels, expended housing and transportation to accommodate low-density conditions and social distancing, educational support and translation services, policies promoting healthy diet and exercise, medical community partnerships, and equitable access to healthcare, treatment and vaccine efforts are some of the public health measures needed to bridge these disparities, Swartz said.
"Public health measures are critical to address structural disparities on a multi-pronged level," she said.