RICHMOND, Va. -- For every two deaths attributed to COVID-19 in the United States, a third American dies as a result of the pandemic, according to a study led by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University. The data was recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The study showed that deaths between March 1 and August 1 increased 20% compared to previous years.
While lead author, Steven Woolf, M.D., Director of Emeritus of VCU’s Center on Society and Health, said that was not surprising for a pandemic, the deaths attributed to COVID-19 only accounted for 67% of those deaths.
“These excess deaths are disproportionately impacting people of color and the low-income population,” Woolf said.
The study specifically showed that the entire nation experienced a significant increase in deaths from dementia and heart disease. Woolf said deaths from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia increased not only in March and April, when the pandemic began but again in June and July when the COVID-19 surge in the Sun Belt occurred.
The study found acute emergencies and chronic diseases like diabetes that weren’t properly cared for, or emotional crises that led to overdoses or suicides also contributed to excess deaths.
If the trend continues, researchers said the U.S. could see more than 400,000 excess deaths by the end of 2020.
“We worry about the presence of chronic diseases or complications from some of these problems may be long lasting, “ Woolf said. “So the person who has the warning signs of a stroke and delays getting care now and has a stroke and ends up paralyzed will live the rest of their lives with those complications.”
Dr. Bruce Lo, M.D. with the Virginia College of Emergency Physicians, said he’s seen patients who have been reluctant to seek medical care during the pandemic.
“We see people who have strokes and heart attacks and I ask them ‘why didn’t you come into the emergency department sooner or seek help before having an emergency,’ and there was an overall fear of coming to the hospital for fear of getting COVID or potentially getting sicker,” Lo said.
Lo said staff shortages at doctor’s offices and the lack of PPE, while improving, also hurt patients’ timely access to healthcare.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize they can do things via Telehealth or there are alternative ways to seek routine medical care,” Lo said.
How each state responded to the pandemic can also play a role in excess deaths. The study contained suggestive evidence that state policies on reopening early in April and May could have fueled the surges experienced in June and July.
“The dilemma here is without a robust response to control community spread and keep the virus from passing through the community,” Woolf said. “Those kinds of restrictions are necessary and what we see in our data shows states that chose to ease those restrictions and reopen early saw not only excess deaths but a protracted surge that lasted months.”
Doctors said it was important to schedule routine doctor’s visits and seek help immediately if you’re experiencing a problem or medical emergency. Making sure your mental health is stable, is also important in staying healthy during this pandemic.