Combination of COVID-19 and Overdoses Contribute to Highest Yearly Death Toll in U.S. History

April 14, 2022

As reported on, 2021 was the deadliest year in U.S. history. Robert Anderson, who oversees the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC's) work on death statistics, said that the main reason for this increase was COVID-19. The CDC reported more than 415,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. in 2021, up from the 351,000 in 2020. This contributed to the total number of deaths in the U.S. in 2021 being 3.465 million, about 80,000 more than the previous record set in 2020.

Drug overdose deaths also rose in 2021, and while the CDC does not yet have complete data for 2021 as lab tests to determine causes of deaths can take weeks, an estimate based on trends earlier in the year suggest that the number would be at least 105,000. This number represents an increase of 12,000 overdose deaths from the 93,000 in 2020.

These two causes of death, COVID-19 and drug overdoses, account for a total increase of approximately 76,000 additional deaths in 2021 over 2020, making up nearly the whole of the 80,000 total death increase.

The largest increases in 2021 over 2020 were in adolescent overdoses, among those aged 14 to 18 years old. According to a study released on Tuesday, Trends in Drug Overdose Deaths Among US Adolescents, January 2010 to June 2021, adolescent death rates were fairly consistent over the past 10 years, resting at about 500 per year. In 2020, that number almost doubled to 954, and again rose in 2021 to 1,150. As quoted on, John Friedman, a UCLA researcher and lead author of the study, called the increase "unprecedented."

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