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Putting COVID-19 in perspective

Now that the number of COVID-19 deaths has passed the unfortunate milestone of 200,000, it may seem to follow that life expectancy for Americans is declining sharply. If current projections play out, however, the pandemic may reduce the average expected lifespan by about a year in 2020, according to a team from the University of California-Berkeley.

In an effort to put mortality rates from the pandemic into perspective, demography experts there recently calculated the impact of lives lost due to COVID-19 in different scenarios.

If, for example, 1 million Americans were to die from the virus this year – which was among the predictions made early on – about three years would be cut from average U.S. life expectancy, they determined. And without the nationwide efforts that have been made to reduce the impact of COVID-19, such as stay-at-home orders, masking and social distancing requirements, there might have been 2 million deaths projected by the end of 2020, reducing average lifespan by five years, they said.

However, based on the more likely projection of 250,000 deaths by the end of this year, average lifespan would decrease by about one year, according to their report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This estimated drop in life expectancy is modest in part, they said, because 250,000 deaths is not a large increase on top of the 3 million deaths not related to COVID-19 expected in 2020. In addition, older Americans, who typically have fewer remaining years of life than younger segments of the population, represent the highest number of COVID-19 fatalities.

They added that while COVID-19 mortality rates remain lower than those for the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic – which killed 675,000 Americans – the coronavirus could be just as devastating over the long term if current efforts to mitigate the virus, which include an effective vaccine, are not successful.

They also emphasized that the human costs of the pandemic could never be expressed in numerical terms. “The death toll of COVID-19 is a terrible thing, both for those who lose their lives and for their family, friends, colleagues and all whom their lives touched. Those are real people, not abstract statistics,” said Ronald Lee, associate director of UC Berkeley’s Center for the Economics and Demography of Aging.

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