In the sharpest decline since the height of World War II in the 1940s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported that life expectancy for Americans dropped dramatically during the first half of 2020 as the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the country.
“Minorities suffered the biggest impact, with Black Americans losing nearly three years and Hispanics, nearly two years,” reported Marilynn Marchione from the Associated Press. “It shows the profound impact of COVID-19, not just on deaths directly due to infection but also from heart disease, cancer and other conditions.”
While the preliminary report did not provide an analysis of trends for Asian or Native Americans, the new CDC estimates show that life expectancy for people of all races — the length of time a baby born today can expect to live, on average — fell by a complete year in 2020, dropping from 78.8 to 77.8 years. In 2019, the average life expectancy for females of all races was 80.5; that number was 75.1 years for males.
“What is really quite striking in these numbers is that they only reflect the first half of the year,” said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, a health equity researcher and dean at the University of California, San Francisco in an interview with Marchione. “I would expect that these numbers would only get worse.”
The CDC has already published reports showing that 2020 was the deadliest year in U.S. history. Deaths in the country topped 3 million for the first time ever in December 2020.
Even experts who see this type of data regularly were surprised by just how much the numbers had shifted in a matter of months.
“I knew it was going to be large but when I saw those numbers, I was like, ‘Oh my God,’” Elizabeth Arias, the federal researcher who produced the report told The New York Times. “We haven’t seen a decline of that magnitude in decades.”
“Researchers say Thursday’s numbers are important because they are a numeric representation of the magnitude of the current coronavirus crisis,” reported the Times’ Sabrina Tavernise and Abby Goodnough. “They may not represent a trend that will continue in the future, but they speak volumes about the sheer scale of the suffering many American communities are experiencing in the present.”
While the life expectancy for Black men and women had been edging closer to that of white people for years due to increased access to health care and greater economic stability, PBS’ Laura Santhanam reported that this newly reported drop is just one more example of how people of color have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, both financially and physically.
“The most recent numbers are just the beginning of what could be a more dramatic trend,” Santhanam cautioned. “Data for the nation’s second and third virus surges, which infected and killed far more Americans than the first [wave], are still being collected and analyzed.”
The release of that data is expected later this spring.