‘Unintentional Injuries’ and the Lockdown


Mary Kief shows a new tattoo in Newtown Square, Penn. on Thursday, September 3, 2020. The tattoo says “love your baby boy” which is something her son, Benjamin Kief, would write to her in letters. Benjamin died on April 1, 2020 of an overdose.



Photo:

Hannah Yoon for The Wall Street Journal

How devastating was the 2020 pandemic and how devastating was government’s reaction to the pandemic? It will likely take years to reach definitive conclusions, but the latest annual federal report on U.S. mortality is a start in discovering the answers. Along with the well-documented ravages of Covid, the government is reporting a stunning increase, especially among young people, in a broad category called “unintentional injuries” that demands further investigation.

The Journal’s Betsy McKay reports:

Life expectancy in the U.S. fell by 1.5 years in 2020, the biggest decline since at least World War II, as the Covid-19 pandemic killed hundreds of thousands and exacerbated crises in drug overdoses, homicides and some chronic diseases.

Provisional data released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that American life expectancy dropped to 77.3 years in 2020, roughly the same level as in 2003, erasing years of hard-won gains in the nation’s public health.

Covid was the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer last year, but the virus was the leading contributor to the decline in life expectancy, according to the government. In trying to track all the non-Covid deaths, there are a number of unresolved issues. Reports Ms. McKay:

The full toll of the pandemic has yet to be seen, doctors and public-health officials said. Many people skipped or delayed treatment last year for conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure and endured isolation, stress and interruptions in normal diet and exercise routines.

“That has led to intermediate and longer-term effects we will have to deal with for years to come,” said Donald Lloyd-Jones, chair of the department of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and president of the American Heart Association…

More deaths from homicide, diabetes and chronic liver disease—which is related to heavy alcohol use—also contributed to last year’s life expectancy drop, the CDC said. Pandemic lockdowns, recession and a backlash against police tactics contributed to a sharp rise in homicides in large U.S. cities that has continued in 2021, according to police, researchers, mayors and community leaders.

Life expectancy would have fallen even more, the CDC said, if not for decreases in mortality due to cancer, chronic lower-respiratory diseases such as bronchitis, emphysema and asthma, and other factors.

There are so many questions here, such as how cancer mortality could have declined in a year when so many were skipping cancer screenings and treatments. Were some deaths that otherwise might have been ascribed to cancer or bronchitis categorized as Covid fatalities?

The government says that after Covid, the biggest contributor to the decline in overall life expectancy was an increase in the category of “unintentional injuries.” We already know a big part of this tragic story during the year of lockdowns. Ms. McKay notes:

Drug-overdose deaths rose nearly 30% last year, driven by a proliferation of the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl as well as stress, isolation and reduced access to treatment during the pandemic, public-health experts said. One study published this month found a 28.3% decline in initiation of addiction treatment in California from March through October 2020.

Last week Ms. McKay reported:

The estimated 93,331 deaths from drug overdoses last year, a record high, represent the sharpest annual increase in at least three decades, and compare with an estimated toll of 72,151 deaths in 2019, according to provisional overdose-drug data released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention…

Many people who were receiving treatment for drug addictions or wanted it were unable to get it in the early weeks or months of the pandemic, or faced disruptions or changes in service, treatment providers say. Job losses or deaths of family and friends created stress and trauma, while office and business closures reduced social interaction, depriving some of coping mechanisms they rely on.

The Journal’s Jon Kamp and Arian Campo-Flores reported in September that “social-distancing limitations are complicating treatment for people who struggle with addiction and for the organizations that provide services to them.” They added:

Benjamin Kief died of an opioid overdose on April 7 while in his car in West Chester, Pa. After serving time for a parole violation, the 30-year-old left a state prison in late March, when the pandemic was ramping up. He struggled to get an appointment with a recovery coach, said his mother, Mary Kief. He also wanted to start attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings, but they weren’t gathering in person due to stay-at-home orders and online video meetings made him anxious, she said.

“We had all these plans set up,” Ms. Kief said. But because of the pandemic, she said, “he didn’t have the resources.”

Beyond this horror, the story gets more difficult to understand. “Increases in unintentional injury deaths in 2020 were largely driven by drug overdose deaths,” reports CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. Largely but not entirely? For all the lockdown’s costs, both human and financial, one would at least expect a sharp decline in fatal accidents as people became drastically less mobile.

That’s exactly what happened for senior citizens on the road, who enjoyed a decline in fatalities resulting from car crashes in 2020. But younger Americans somehow managed to record a surge in motor-vehicle deaths even as the overall number of miles driven was plunging.

Last month the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration noted the stunning data in a press release that should have received more attention:

While Americans drove less in 2020 due to the pandemic, NHTSA’s early estimates show that an estimated 38,680 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes—the largest projected number of fatalities since 2007. This represents an increase of about 7.2 percent as compared to the 36,096 fatalities reported in 2019. Preliminary data from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) shows vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in 2020 decreased by about 430.2 billion miles, or about a 13.2-percent decrease. The fatality rate for 2020 was 1.37 fatalities per 100 million VMT, up from 1.11 fatalities per 100 million VMT in 2019. NHTSA’s analysis shows that the main behaviors that drove this increase include: impaired driving, speeding and failure to wear a seat belt.

The highway mortality surge included more incidents involving alcohol and an increase in single-vehicle crash deaths. Were they all unintentional?

The needs of younger Americans have been systematically ignored by the older Americans who make Covid policy. Let’s not ignore data showing the impact of these policies on the health of young people, which are crying out for further study.

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James Freeman is the co-author of “The Cost: Trump, China and American Revival.”

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