Doug Lambrecht was one of the first of nearly 1 million Americans to die from COVID-19. His demographic profile – an older white male with chronic health problems – mirrors the faces of many people who will be lost over the next two years.
The 71-year-old retired doctor was recovering from a fall at a nursing home near Seattle when the novel coronavirus broke out in early 2020. Americans will pay.
The pandemic has generated gigabytes of data that clearly show which US groups have been hit the hardest. More than 700,000 people aged 65 and over have died. Men died more often than women.
White people accounted for most of the deaths overall, but an unequal burden fell on blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans, given the younger median ages of minority communities. The racial gaps narrowed between bursts and then widened again with each new wave.
Doug’s son Nathan Lambrecht, seeing 1 million deaths, thought about the losses.
“I’m afraid that as the number goes up, people will care less and less about it,” he said. “I just hope that people who didn’t know them and didn’t suffer the same loss in their lives due to COVID, I just hope they don’t forget and don’t forget to care.”
The elders suffered greatly
Three out of every four deaths were in people aged 65 or older, according to US data analyzed by the Associated Press.
About 255,000 people aged 85 and over have died; 257,000 were between the ages of 75 and 84; and about 229,000 were between the ages of 65 and 74.
“A million things went wrong, and most of them could have been prevented,” says aged care expert Charlene Harrington of the University of California, San Francisco. Harrington, 80, hopes the lessons of the pandemic will encourage U.S. health officials to pass minimum staffing requirements for nursing homes, “then maybe I can retire.”
In almost every 10-year age group, more men have died from COVID-19 than women.
Men have a shorter life expectancy than women, so it is not surprising that the only age group in which female mortality exceeds male mortality is the oldest: 85 years and older.
For some bereaved families, economic hardship has added to their grief, said Rima Samman, who is coordinating the COVID-19 memorial project, which began as a tribute to her brother Rami, who died in May 2020 at the age of 40.
“A widow is losing her house or the car she used to take her kids to school because her husband has died,” Samman said. “Little by little you are being lowered from the middle class to the lower class.”
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Race, ethnicity and age
White people accounted for 65% of the total deaths, by far the largest proportion of any race.
This is not so surprising, because there are more white people in the US than any other race. American Indians, Pacific Islanders, and Blacks had higher mortality rates when looking at COVID-19 deaths per capita.
Per capita mortality rates continue to miss a characteristic that is critical to understanding which groups have been disproportionately affected – COVID-19 is more dangerous for older people.
There are many more older white people in the US than older people of other races. In order to assess which race has been disproportionately affected, it is necessary to adjust the per capita mortality rate by calculating the rates as if each race had the same age breakdown.
Once the share of deaths from COVID-19 is adjusted for age in this way, we can compare it to the share of race in the total population. If the age-adjusted proportion of deaths from COVID-19 is higher than the proportion of the US population, that race has been disproportionately affected.
When considering age, it is clear that Blacks, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 deaths than other groups in the US.
If you look at the death rate per capita, then Mississippi has the highest rate of any state.
“We’ve lost so many people to COVID,” said Joyi Washington, a public health educator in Hattiesburg. “The hardest thing in Mississippi was to grieve without having time to heal. You go through injury after injury after injury… From what I understand, the normality is gone.”
Communities rallied. Churches set up test sites, school buses delivered food to students when classes were closed, her city’s mayor used social media to provide reliable information. “Even in the midst of the turmoil, you can still find joy, you can still find light,” she said. “Opportunities are there if you look for them.”
During the two waves of the pandemic, Native Americans experienced higher mortality rates than all other groups. For Mary Francis, a 41-year-old Navajo woman from Page, Arizona, these deaths reinforce a long-standing value of self-sufficiency.
“It goes back to the teachings of our elders,” said Francis, who helps deliver vaccines and care packages to Navajo and Hopi families. “Try to be self-sufficient, how to take care of ourselves and how not to rely too much on the government (and) other sources that may or may not have our best interests at heart.”