Health Care — COVID-19 was third leading cause of death last year

AP Photo/Jae C Hong, File

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy posted a Twitter thread explaining why is he still wearing a mask on planes even without a mandate, saying “our decisions affect others.”

Today, we’re diving into new CDC data on where COVID-19 ranks as a cause of death, and a look at how many deaths could have been prevented with more vaccinations.

Welcome to Overnight Health Care, where we’re following the latest moves on policy and news affecting your health. For The Hill, we’re Peter Sullivan, Nathaniel Weixel and Joseph Choi. Someone forward you this newsletter? Subscribe here.

COVID third leading cause of death last year: CDC

COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in the United States in 2021, according to data released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The data illustrate the toll from the virus, with 415,000 COVID-19 deaths last year. Coronavirus was the leading cause of death behind heart disease, with 693,000 deaths, and cancer, at 605,000 deaths.

COVID-19 was also the third-leading cause of death in 2020, but the number of deaths from the virus actually increased in 2021, with 60,000 more deaths than 2020.

The continued toll from the virus comes even as vaccines have been widely available since last spring, but many Americans did not get vaccinated

“Covid shouldn’t even be in the top 10 causes of death in the US if we consistently used all the tools available,” tweeted Eric Topol, professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research. “Yet we’re still now losing the lives of 500 Americans each day.”

COVID-19 was the underlying cause of death for 415,000 people last year, and when deaths where COVID-19 was a contributing factor are counted too, that number increases to 460,000.

Read more here.

1/4 of US COVID deaths preventable by vaccines

A new analysis finds that approximately 234,000 US deaths from COVID-19 since June 2021 could have been prevented if people had been vaccinated.

The analysis from the Peterson Center on Healthcare and the Kaiser Family Foundation underscores the importance of vaccination, and indicates a significant portion of the heavy toll from the virus could have been prevented.

The 234,000 preventable deaths translates to about one quarter of the nearly 1 million US deaths from the virus since the pandemic began, and 60 percent of the deaths since June 2021, when vaccines became widely available.

“Since vaccines became widely available last summer, a total of 389,000 adults in the United States have died of COVID-19, and 6 in 10 of those deaths – about 234,000 deaths – could have been prevented by timely vaccinations,” the analysis states. “This analysis underscores the importance of continued efforts to increase the number of people vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19.”

The analysis does not include the effect of booster shots, but notes that booster shots can help prevent even more deaths. Getting a booster is particularly important in the face of the omicron variant, which has shown an increased ability to evade the vaccines, though there is still important protection against severe disease and death.

Read more here.


Accelerated Approvals & The Pathway to Treatments—Tuesday, April 26 at 1:00 PM ET

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Philadelphia is ending its indoor mask mandate, city health officials said Thursday night, abruptly reversing course just days after people in the city had to start wearing masks again amid a sharp increase in infections.

The Board of Health voted Thursday to respind the mandate, according to the Philadelphia health department, which released a statement that cited “decreasing hospitalizations and a leveling of case counts.”

The mandate went into effect Monday. Philadelphia had ended its earlier indoor mask mandate March 2.

The health department did not release data to back up its reversal on masking, saying more information would be provided Friday. But the acting health commissioner, Dr. Cheryl Bettigole, told the Board of Health at a public meeting Thursday night that hospitalizations had unexpectedly gone down 25% in a matter of days.

“We’re in a situation that we really had not anticipated being in this soon but it is good news,” she said, according to a transcript of the meeting. “So I’m really very happy … to say it appears that we no longer need to mandate masks in Philadelphia and that we can actually move to simply a strong recommendation.”

Read more here.


Officials in Ohio say they’re seeing a rise in the use of nitazenes — a group of synthetic opioids that can be exponentially more potent than fentanyl.

Nitazene compounds were first synthesized in the 1950s for pharmaceutical research, and more recently, began to crop up in the illicit drug market in 2019.

These synthetic opioids are typically combined with other drugs like fentanyl, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, as they’re cheap to manufacture and pack a powerful punch. The drugs have been found to be anywhere from 2 to 40 times stronger than fentanyl, which has fueled an unprecedented number of drug overdose deaths.

Earlier this week, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost (R) warned residents that authorities have reported an increase in the prevalence of the drug over the last year.

“Frankenstein opioids are even more lethal than the drugs already responsible for so many overdose deaths,” Yost said. “Law enforcement and the public need to pay attention to these emerging hazards.”

Read more here.

LA County to keep requiring masks on public transit

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health said on Thursday that the county will continue to require masking on public transportation systems, breaking with a recent ruling by a federal judge in Florida, which struck down the federal mask mandate on transportation systems.

The department noted it is issuing a health order to say that masking will continue to be required in indoor transportation hubs such as bus and airport terminals and on all public transportation — including ride-shares, trains and buses — within Los Angeles County.

The county requirement applies to everyone aged at least two years old, regardless of whether they received the COVID-19 vaccine or not.

“Public Health will reassess the indoor masking requirement when COVID-19 community transmission in Los Angeles County drops to the Moderate level, OR the CDC’s assessment is that an order requiring masking in the transportation corridor is no longer necessary for protection of the public’s health, OR within 30 days of this order, whichever occurs first,” the department said in a statement.

Earlier this week, Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, a Trump appointee, struck down the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) federal order mandating masking on transportation modes such as planes, buses and trains.

Read more here.


  • Travel nurses remain pricey, and it’s weighing on hospital profits (Stat)
  • Analysis: The US Appealed to Reinstate Masks. But Is It Seeking to Win? (The New York Times)
  • When will the US have a Covid-19 vaccine for the youngest children? (CNN)


  • Biden administration drops fight over Texas’ Medicaid waiver, now in place until 2030 (Texas Tribune)
  • How Kentucky Republicans blocked all abortions for more than a week (NPR)
  • Hoosiers added to Medicaid during pandemic could be at risk of losing coverage (WFYI)

That’s it for today, thanks for reading. Check out The Hill’s Health Care page for the latest news and coverage. See you Monday.


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