LOS ANGELES - U.S. males experienced the largest loss in life expectancy in 2020 during the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study published by Oxford University on Monday.
Researchers noted that approximately 2.2 years of life for American males was lost due to the increased mortality rate attributed to COVID-19.
"The COVID-19 pandemic triggered significant mortality increases in 2020 of a magnitude not witnessed since World War II in Western Europe or the breakup of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe," Oxford researchers wrote.
The study echoes previous research which found that life expectancy in the U.S. decreased by nearly two years between 2018 and 2020. It’s the largest decline since World War II.
The nation’s overall mortality rate fell in 2019 due to reductions in heart disease and cancer deaths. And life expectancy inched up — by several weeks — for the second straight year in 2019, according to data released on Dec. 22, 2020, by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But then life expectancy in the U.S. dropped a staggering full year during the first half of 2020. Scientists say the sharp decline is largely due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Researchers also noted that Black and Hispanic groups saw the greatest dip in life expectancy compared to other groups of people.
"Evidence of disproportionate reductions in life expectancy among racial and ethnic groups in the U.S., such as the disparities reported here, draws attention to the root causes of racial inequities in health, wealth, and wellbeing," study authors noted.
The main cause of the life expectancy dip was not only the hundreds of thousands of Americans who died from the novel coronavirus, but also the "disruptions produced by the pandemic," study authors wrote.
A separate report from Pew Research Center published in June found that the novel coronavirus had caused an estimated loss of nearly 5.5 million combined years of life in the U.S. in 2020 alone.
Pew researchers said that COVID-19 contributed to more lost years of life for Americans than all accidental deaths combined in a typical year.
COVID-19 has now killed about as many Americans as the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic did — approximately 675,000. And like the worldwide scourge of a century ago, the coronavirus may never entirely disappear.
The delta variant-fueled surge in new infections may have peaked, but U.S. deaths still are running at more than 1,900 a day on average, the highest level since early March. The country’s overall death toll stood at more than 690,000 as of Monday, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University, though the real number is believed to be higher.
Winter may bring a new surge, though it will likely be less deadly than last year’s, according to one influential model. The University of Washington model projects an additional 100,000 or more Americans will die of COVID-19 by Jan. 1 , which would bring the overall U.S. toll to 776,000.
The 1918-19 influenza pandemic killed an estimated 675,000 Americans in a U.S. population one-third the size of what it is today. It struck down 50 million victims globally at a time when the world had one-quarter as many people as it does now. Global deaths from COVID-19 now stand at more than 4.6 million.
"We know that all pandemics come to an end," said Dr. Jeremy Brown, director of emergency care research at the National Institutes of Health, who wrote a book on influenza. "They can do terrible things while they’re raging."
COVID-19 could have been far less lethal in the U.S. if more people had gotten vaccinated faster, "and we still have an opportunity to turn it around," Brown said. "We often lose sight of how lucky we are to take these things for granted."
The current COVID-19 vaccines work extremely well in preventing severe disease and death from the variants of the virus that have emerged so far.
Instead, scientists hope the virus that causes COVID-19 becomes a mild seasonal bug as human immunity strengthens through vaccination and repeated infection. That would take time.
"We hope it will be like getting a cold, but there’s no guarantee," said Emory University biologist Rustom Antia, who suggests an optimistic scenario in which this could happen over a few years.
For now, the pandemic still has the United States and other parts of the world firmly in its jaws.
It will be crucial for scientists to make sure the ever-mutating virus hasn’t changed enough to evade vaccines or to cause severe illness in unvaccinated children, Antia said. Such shifts would require an adjustment in defense strategies and would mean a longer path to a post-pandemic world.
So, will the current pandemic unseat the 1918-19 flu pandemic as the worst in human history?
"You’d like to say no. We have a lot more infection control, a lot more ability to support people who are sick. We have modern medicine," said Ann Marie Kimball, a retired University of Washington professor of epidemiology. "But we have a lot more people and a lot more mobility. ... The fear is eventually a new strain gets around a particular vaccine target."
To those unvaccinated individuals who are counting on infection rather than vaccination for immune protection, Kimball said, "The trouble is, you have to survive infection to acquire the immunity." It’s easier, she said, to go to the drugstore and get a shot.