Mar 24, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Census Bureau: COVID drove largest spike in U.S. deaths in a century

Illustration of rows of tally marks
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

COVID-19 drove the largest death spike in a century, with 535,000 more deaths in 2020 than in 2019, according to newly released U.S. Census Bureau data.

Why it matters: The new data shows how profoundly the pandemic has impacted the U.S. population, as Americans died or fled cities for the sanctuary of cheaper or less populous areas.

What we're watching: The Ozarks, Catskills and Poconos were among the destinations with seasonal housing that saw significant growth in people moving in — or deciding to stay — between mid-2020 and mid-2021. Counties on the outskirts of metro areas including Columbus, Ohio, and Indianapolis also saw bumps.

  • Meanwhile, pricey, mega-population areas of New York-Newark, San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland and Los Angeles-Long Beach experienced stark "net domestic migration decrease."
  • This means fewer people moving in or more people moving out or a combination. Those three big city areas saw the largest decline in net domestic migration of any other similarly tied areas.
  • Together, major metro areas — those with 1 million or more residents — lost population over the year. Brookings Institution's Bill Frey said this was the first time that has happened in a decade.

By the numbers: There was a 19% jump in the number of U.S. deaths between 2019 and 2020. Before then, the largest increase of the decade had been just 3.3% in 2015.

  • The U.S. death toll remained high in 2021, according to the latest provisional data for the year, and the pandemic has disrupted what were once predictable, seasonal mortality trends.

The overall rise in mortality contributed to deaths outpacing births in more than 73% of U.S. counties between mid-2020 and mid-2021 — a record high and up from 56% the year before and 46% in 2019.

  • Half of states saw more deaths than births, a phenomenon called "natural decrease." The trend was particularly clear in the Northeast and the South, according to the census bureau.
  • Every county in Delaware, Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island experienced a natural decrease.

Yes, but: Counterintuitively, nearly three out of five (58%) U.S. counties experienced population growth between the start of July 2020 and the end of June 2021

  • This was in large part due to people avoiding more crowded, urban areas and instead staying in or heading for less populous parts of the country.
  • In many counties, those decisions helped offset the broader demographic trends that point toward population decline, such as the spike in deaths, slowing birth rates and declining international immigration to the U.S.

Between the lines: Two-thirds of U.S. counties experienced positive net domestic migration between mid-2020 and mid-2021 — meaning they saw more people staying or moving in than leaving.

  • That percentage was up from just 46% the year before.
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