COVID-19 pandemic leads to drop in life expectancy in the U.S.

Life expectancy in the United States dropped dramatically during the first half of 2020 as tens of thousands of Americans succumbed to the COVID-19 virus, health officials are reporting.

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The decline is the most dramatic since the 1940s, researchers said.

“I knew it was going to be large but when I saw those numbers, I was like, ‘Oh my God,’” Elizabeth Arias, the federal researcher who produced the report, said of the racial disparity. Of the drop for the full population, she said, “We haven’t seen a decline of that magnitude in decades.”

Life expectancy is the measure of how long a baby born today can expect to live, on average. In the first half of last year, that was 77.8 years for Americans overall, down one year from 78.8 in 2019.

For males, it was 75.1 years and for females, 80.5 years.

Minorities suffered the biggest impact in life expectancy, according to preliminary estimates released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with Black Americans losing nearly three years, and Hispanics nearly two years.

“Black and Hispanic communities throughout the United States have borne the brunt of this pandemic,” said Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, a health equity researcher and dean at the University of California, San Francisco.

They’re more likely to be in frontline, low-wage jobs and living in crowded environments where it’s easier for the virus to spread, and “there are stark, preexisting health disparities in other conditions” that raise their risk of dying of COVID-19, Bibbins-Domingo said.

While COVID-19 deaths contributed greatly to the estimate, the novel coronavirus also played a part in deaths from causes such as cancer and heart disease. Many, fearing exposure to the virus, have put off checkups and tests that could have discovered disease or treated it.

“What is really quite striking in these numbers is that they only reflect the first half of the year ... I would expect that these numbers would only get worse,” Bibbins-Domingo said.

The US has the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 infection cases and deaths in the world, with nearly 500,000 losing their lives to the virus.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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