Report shows 4,500 ‘excess deaths’ in Virginia during pandemic

Report shows 4,500 ‘excess deaths’ in Virginia during pandemic
New research from Virginia Commonwealth University shows that an additional 4,500 Virginians died between March and August over would be expected based on historical data. (Source: Gage Cureton)

New research from Virginia Commonwealth University shows that an additional 4,500 Virginians died between March and August over would be expected based on historical data — a measure known as excess deaths.

That’s an increase of 16 percent, according to Dr. Steven Woolf, the lead author on the paper and director emeritus of VCU’s Center on Society and Health. But only 52 percent of those excess deaths in Virginia during the COVID-19 pandemic were attributed to the virus itself as either the underlying cause or a contributing factor.

While it’s possible that coronavirus wasn’t accurately identified as a contributor in some of those deaths, Woolf said the most recent analysis — which builds on an earlier paper looking at excess deaths across the country in March and April — bolsters concerns that the pandemic is also causing a wave of secondary deaths due to ongoing disruptions in everyday life.

“We’re seeing the U.S. mortality rate for Alzheimer’s disease increased significantly during these five months,” he added. “Suddenly the national death rate for heart disease increased significantly. So, this is a real thing.”

Since early in the pandemic, experts in Virginia have been concerned that COVID-19 safety restrictions — including a stay-at-home order in late March and a month-long ban on elective procedures — may be worsening chronic conditions or otherwise affecting public health. By late April, pediatricians were troubled by a precipitous drop in the state’s childhood vaccination rates. The Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association reported that emergency room use declined by 52 percent within the first three weeks after Virginia reported its first confirmed case.

Both ER and inpatient hospital discharges have rebounded slightly since the ban on elective procedures was rescinded in May, but are still far from the levels seen in previous years, according to a VHHA webinar last week. The state has also seen an increase in opioid overdoses during the same period — including a 123 percent increase in nonfatal overdose hospital visits at VCU.

“It’s likely that people who aren’t infected with the virus are being impacted in terms of physical and behavioral health issues,” Woolf said. “Various hospitals and clinicians are reporting delays in patients coming in for chronic illnesses. People were slow to respond to acute emergencies because they were scared of the virus. And conversely, there were increased admissions for drug overdoses.”

The study found that excess deaths increased by a total of 20 percent nationwide since March, with the highest per-capita rates in 10 states including New York, New Jersey and Arizona — some of the areas hit hardest by the virus. Deaths from non-COVID causes, such as heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s, also spiked sharply in five states with the greatest numbers of coronavirus deaths.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.