COVID's economic fallout could elevate US mortality rate for years, study shows

Some 900,000 Americans could die as a result in next 15 years

The lingering economic pain from the coronavirus pandemic could elevate the mortality rate in the U.S. for more than a decade, with close to 900,000 excess deaths projected over the next 15 years.

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A new paper published by researchers at Duke, Johns Hopkins and Harvard universities found the nation's mortality rate could increase by 3% while life expectancy could drop as much as 0.5% over the next 15 years, translating into an additional 890,000 deaths. That amounts to roughly 1.37 million deaths in the span of 20 years.

"We find that shocks to unemployment are followed by statistically significant increases in mortality rates and declines in life expectancy," the authors wrote in the paper, which was circulated by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

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The economic crisis — and the subsequent health consequences — will disproportionately affect Black Americans and women, the study shows. For every 100,000 citizens, 33 Black Americans and 25 White Americans could die as a result of the financial fallout.

“African-Americans experience larger unemployment shocks and the effects of these shocks on unemployment are more persistent,” the researchers said. “The effects on life expectancy and death rates are more severe for African-Americans, overall.”

In the early months of the pandemic, the nation's unemployment rate surged to 14.7%, the highest since the Great Depression. While more workers have returned to their jobs since then, the pandemic continues to weigh heavily on the economy, with roughly 800,000 Americans filing for jobless claims each week since September, about four times the pre-crisis level.

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There are still about 9.8 million more Americans out of work than there were in February before the crisis began, Labor Department figures show.

“Large, sustained and swift government maneuvers to support the currently unemployed labor force and to abate unemployment will be as equally important as the massive efforts focused on limiting and eventually eradicating transmission” of the virus, the researchers wrote.

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President Trump signed a $900 billion relief package into law at the end of December that includes about $325 billion in small business relief, including $284 billion in forgivable loans for small businesses through the Paycheck Protection Program; an extension of boosted federal unemployment benefits at $300 a week through March 14, 2021, and a second $600 stimulus check for Americans earning less than $75,000.

Deaths of despair, or deaths by suicide and drug overdose, rose as much as 60% in the U.S. during the pandemic and recession, according to a separate report published by Casey Mulligan, a University of Chicago economist.