4 Numbers That Make the Pandemic’s Massive Death Toll Sink In

It’s difficult to fully comprehend the magnitude of 350,000 deaths. Other metrics can be more illuminating.

An aerial view of hundreds of graves
Michael Dantas / AFP / Getty

Over the past month, COVID-19’s death toll in the United States has regularly risen by roughly 2,000 or 3,000 a day. With numbers so large, the pain and heartbreak behind each individual death often doesn’t register.

Perhaps people would be less numb to the death toll if it were scaled down to a more human level. A change in time frame might help: Consider, for instance, that during the month of December, an average of about 1.7 people in the U.S. died from COVID-19 every minute.

That’s one relatively straightforward way of quantifying the impact of the pandemic. Below are four others, each one a light cast from a different angle in an attempt to more fully illuminate the scope of the losses.

This estimate, computed by Harvard’s Stephen Elledge, compares the age at which people died from COVID-19 with how long they likely would have lived according to projections from the Social Security Administration.

The 13-year average includes both people who died not long before they would have been otherwise expected to and people who died much earlier than that. A lot of relatively young people lost a lot of time: People under the age of 65, Elledge estimates, account for 45 percent of the total unlived years.

A graph showing total years of life lost to COVID-19, broken down by age group

“When people talk about deaths from COVID-19, they say, ‘Well, they were old. They were going to die anyway,’” Elledge told me. “But people don’t appreciate the fact that even if you’re 70 or 75, you may still have 10 to 15 years of life left. And they also don’t appreciate, with the deaths of younger people, that it’s a huge loss of life, sometimes 40 years.”

Elledge’s analysis covers COVID-19 deaths through early October; by then, Americans had collectively lost about 2.5 million years of life. Three months later, he estimates, the total is probably about 4.5 million.

Patrick Heuveline, a demographer at UCLA, estimates that by the end of 2020 there were enough deaths in the U.S. to lower life expectancy at birth to 77.7 years. In 2019, life expectancy was 78.8 years, which would mean a drop-off of roughly a year from 2019 to 2020, and, depending on as-yet-unavailable data about deaths last year, the drop-off could be even larger. Nothing in the past several decades, including the AIDS epidemic and the opioid crisis, has pushed life expectancy down by more than a few months from one year to the next.

The last time life expectancy was below 77.7 years was 2005. This means that, while the drop in life expectancy should be reversed in the future as the threat from COVID-19 fades, the pandemic has temporarily canceled out the gains that have been made against all other causes of death during the past 15 years.

As a metric, life expectancy is a bit unintuitive. Heuveline told me that it “results from a thought experiment: How long would a newborn be expected to live, on average, if at every age throughout her entire life she was subjected to the survival rates in this calendar year for people at that age?” In other words, life expectancy is calculated under the assumption that the conditions of a particular year will persist indefinitely.

The prospect of 2020 repeating ad infinitum is horrifying, but, thankfully, also unrealistic, so life expectancy should rebound in a matter of years. In the meantime, the 2020 drop-off captures how dramatically survival rates have fallen in the U.S.—and how nothing in recent history rivals the pandemic in this regard.

Those figures are based on an analysis from the APM Research Lab’s Color of Coronavirus project, which has calculated the death rates for other racial groups as well. Indigenous Americans have been the hardest-hit group, with one in 750 dead. For Pacific Islanders, the rate is one in 1,100; Latinos, one in 1,150; and Asian Americans, one in 1,925.

In a way, these numbers actually understate the gaps between white Americans and those in other racial groups. That’s because older people are more likely than younger people to die from COVID-19, and a larger percentage of white Americans are older, compared with other racial groups. Holding all else equal, those two facts should have meant, for instance, that Black Americans would die from COVID-19 at lower rates than white Americans. Instead, the opposite is the case.

This number covers those who have lost a grandparent, parent, spouse, sibling, or child. Ashton Verdery, a sociologist at Penn State who helped come up with the estimate, told me that about 50,000 to 70,000 people in their 60s and 70s may have lost a spouse to COVID-19.

A visual representing the number of Americans who lost a close relative to COVID-19

These estimates come from a model of kinship networks in the U.S. that Verdery and his collaborators built. They used that model to develop what they call a “bereavement multiplier”: At any given time, the number of mourners is roughly nine times the cumulative number of people who have died.

This multiplier, however, doesn’t include extended family members, stepparents and stepchildren, long-term cohabiting partners, adopted family members, or friends. This means that the number of people who have lost someone close to them is larger still.

So far, nearly 350,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S., according to The Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project. Despite the recent good news about vaccine effectiveness, that number is only going to keep rising, given how widely the virus has been circulating in the colder months. Anthony Fauci predicted in late November that “December, January and early February are going to be terribly painful months,” and so far he has been right. As the death toll continues to climb, alternative metrics will become only more necessary to comprehend the full depth of the losses.