People fill the Santa Monica Pier in California during Memorial Day as COVID-19 shutdowns are relaxed in May 31 photo. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: Life expectancy at birth fell to 77 years in 2020, a continued slide in a reliable gauge of Americans’ health as the coronavirus pandemic surged through the country, killing more than 350,000 people, the government reported on Wednesday.

This is the biggest decline in life expectancy the US has seen since World War II when that figure fell by 2.9 years in 1943.

The average expected life span declined 1.8 years over 2019. That was up from July, when the Biden administration reported provisional results for 2020 that showed a 1.5-year drop.

Death rates rose for every age group except children ages 1 to 14, with COVID-19 becoming the third-leading cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease and cancer, according to the report from the National Center for Health Statistics. The disease caused by the coronavirus was the underlying cause of death for 350,831 people last year - 10.4 percent of the 3,383,729 deaths recorded.

Life expectancy had been ticking down in recent years, a troubling trend driven by drug overdose deaths and suicides. But the pandemic has caused much larger declines. The 1.8-year drop was the largest reduction in a single year in more than 75 years.

Suicide fell from the top 10 causes of death in 2020, replaced by covid-19. The other nine killers of Americans remained the same, though in some cases they changed order. The top 10 are: heart disease, cancer, COVID-19, unintentional injuries, stroke, chronic lower respiratory diseases, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, and kidney disease.

Together, they accounted for 74.1 percent of all deaths in the United States.

The infant mortality rate dropped 2.9 per cent to a record low of 541.9 per 100,000 live births.

According to ABC News, diabetes deaths topped 100,000 for the first time and accidental or unintentional injury deaths—which include drug overdoses—crossed 200,000.

On a slightly more positive note, the infant mortality rate in the US dropped by 2.9% to a record low of 541.9 deaths per 100,000 live births.

US health officials believe that 2021 may actually surpass the grim numbers recorded last year as the death toll from COVID-19 has continued to rise. The CDC’s Robert Anderson told the Associated Press it is likely that the nation will see more than 3.4 million deaths in 2021, crossing the tally of 3.384 million tally set in 2020.

“Population growth has been slowing for years because of lower birth rates and decreasing net international migration, all while mortality rates are rising due to the aging of the nation’s population,” said Kristie Wilder, a demographer in the Population Division at the Census Bureau.

“Now, with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, this combination has resulted in an historically slow pace of growth.”

Even with the decline in immigration over the latest 12-month period, the net international migration of 244,622 for the first time ever exceeded the “natural increase” of US births over deaths - 148,043 in 2020 - the agency said.

Due to delays in crunching the numbers caused by the pandemic, the Census Bureau’s latest population report used blended data incorporating estimates from the once-a-decade 2020 census with other sources, including birth, death and migration records.

Between 2020 and 2021, 33 states saw population increases and 17 states and the District of Columbia lost population, 11 of which had losses of over 10,000 people, the agency said, calling it “a historically large” number of states losing residents.

A separate analysis showed Texas had the biggest population increase at 1.1 percent, mostly due to domestic migration to the state and rising net birth rates.

New York showed the biggest decline, falling 1.6 percent in the year, mostly due to domestic migration out of the state, the agency said.