Deaths from COVID-19 have dropped 90% in the United States since their peak in January, according to provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As the nation reopens and restrictions are lifted, however, the virus continues to kill hundreds of people daily. By late May, there were still nearly 2,500 weekly deaths attributed to COVID-19.
More than half of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and it’s the remaining unvaccinated population that is driving the lingering deaths, experts say.
After the first vaccines were authorized for emergency use in December, with priority given to senior populations before younger groups, the share of those dying who were 75 or older started dropping immediately.
In turn, younger populations began to make up higher shares of COVID-19 deaths compared with their shares at the peak of the pandemic — a trend that continued when vaccine eligibility opened up to all adults. While the number of deaths dropped in all age groups, about half of COVID-19 deaths are now of people aged 50 to 74, compared with only a third in December.
“Previously, at the start of the pandemic, we were seeing people who were over the age of 60, who have numerous comorbidities,” said Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, an infectious disease expert at the Medical University of South Carolina. “I’m not seeing that as much anymore.” Instead, she said, hospitalizations have lately been skewing toward “people who are younger, people who have not been vaccinated.”
More than 80% of those 65 and older have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, compared with about half of those aged 25 to 64 who have received one dose. Data collected by the CDC on so-called breakthrough infections — those that happen to vaccinated people — suggest an exceedingly low rate of death among people who had received a COVID-19 vaccine.
“I still think the narrative, unfortunately, is out there with younger people that they can’t suffer the adverse events related to COVID,” said Kuppalli, who added that young people can indeed still experience severe consequences from the virus.
Still, those 50 and older continue to make up the bulk of COVID-19 deaths. Among that cohort, white Americans are driving the shifts in death patterns. At the height of the pandemic, those who were white and aged 75 and older accounted for more than half of all COVID-19 deaths. Now, they make up less than a third.
Middle-aged populations of all racial groups are making up a higher share of COVID-19 deaths compared with their shares in December.
The extent of the drop in deaths, however, is not uniform across the board, and cumulative vaccination rates among Black and Hispanic populations continue to lag behind those of Asian and white populations, according to demographic data released by the CDC.
The steepest declines have been with older white patients, and also Asians under 30, a group whose weekly COVID-19 deaths were in the single digits even during the height of the pandemic.
The remaining deaths are mainly driven by those who have yet to be vaccinated, Kuppalli said, describing two main groups within this population: those who choose to not get vaccinated because of misinformation and politicization around the vaccine, and those who remain unvaccinated because of other factors, including access.
“I think we still have work to do with that population. Particularly in difficult to reach populations, such as rural populations, ethnic and racial minority populations, homeless populations, people who don’t access medical care.”
COVID-19 deaths are still prevalent in certain groups.
While deaths from the virus in nursing homes have dropped more than 90% since December, about 200 people per week are still dying of COVID-19 in the facilities, comprising 7% of all deaths from the virus nationwide.
The shares of COVID-19 death records mentioning conditions like diabetes and hypertensive diseases have also stayed similar to their shares during the height of the pandemic.
While there is no longer a large epicenter, death rates are still high in small pockets across the nation.
“It may be something that lingers with us for quite some time,” said Dr. Gavin Harris, who works in the intensive care units at Emory University Hospital. “If we don’t get to 75%, 70% people who have vaccinations, we’re going to see a sizable number of deaths for quite a substantial period of time.”