When the coronavirus pandemic reached its peak in March and April in the United States, the response was drastic: surgeries and doctor visits were canceled, governors issued stay-at-home orders and people stayed away from emergency rooms in droves.
Doctors who spoke on the subject at the time worried that the public and medical response to the pandemic was itself going to be the cause of additional, non-COVID-related deaths. Emergency room visits decreased 42%, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). If people were afraid of seeking medical attention for critical needs such as heart attacks, for example, medical professionals wondered out loud if we going to see a spike in deaths that could have been prevented.
A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) from researchers at Virginia Commonwealth and Yale universities indicates that in reviewing the total number of U.S. deaths in March and April, there were 87,000 more than the typical average for those months. But of that number, only two-thirds can be directly attributable to COVID-related symptoms. And in 14 states, over 50% of the excess deaths were attributed to causes other than COVID.
The researchers found an alarming increase of deaths due to diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and stroke during that period.
Some of those deaths might be explained, the study’s main author, Steven Woolf, suggests, by factors such as mis-labeling deaths attributed to underlying medical issues that may have been aggravated by COVID, rather than attributing those deaths directly to COVID. The study considered any deaths where COVID was listed as an aggravating cause to be a COVID death.
However, Woolf fears that many of the excess deaths were caused by the public and governmental response to the pandemic, rather than from the virus. “People who never had the virus may have died from other causes because of the spillover effects of the pandemic, such as delayed medical care, economic hardship or emotional distress,” he said. The same is true for mental health care; the lack of, or avoidance of sufficient treatment could also have caused an increase in suicides.
In another study from Iceland, children appear to be the least affected by COVID-19. The April study, updated in June, showed that no children (in a test group of over 9000 Icelanders) under the age of 10 tested positive for the coronavirus in that country, which aggressively tested and contact-traced its population. The Washington Post reports that several European countries that re-opened their schools recently have found limited negative effects from doing so, but that Israel is experiencing a COVID-related outbreak in its schools.
All of that may play into the public debate here in the U.S. over whether and how to re-open schools this fall. It has also become a political issue that may influence the November presidential election.
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