Life expectancy in the United States fell by a full year in the first six months of 2020, the federal government reported on Thursday, the largest drop since World War II and a grim measure of the deadly consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.
Life expectancy — the average number of years that a newborn is expected to live — is the most basic measure of the health of a population, and the stark decline over such a short period is highly unusual and a signal of deep distress. The drop comes after a series of troubling smaller declines driven largely by a surge in drug overdose deaths. A fragile recovery over the past two years has now been wiped out.
Thursday’s figures give the first full picture of the pandemic’s effect on American life spans, which dropped to 77.8 years from 78.8 years in 2019. It also showed a deepening of racial and ethnic disparities: Life expectancy of the Black population declined by 2.7 years in the first half of 2020, after 20 years of gains. The gap between Black and white Americans, which had been narrowing, is now at six years, the widest since 1998.
“I knew it was going to be large, but when I saw those numbers, I was like, ‘Oh my God,’” Elizabeth Arias, the federal researcher who produced the report, said of the racial disparity. Of the drop for the full population, she said, “We haven’t seen a decline of that magnitude in decades.”
Still, unlike the drop caused by the extended, complex problem of drug overdoses, this one, driven largely by Covid-19, is not likely to last as long because virus deaths are easing and people are being vaccinated. In 1918, when hundreds of thousands of Americans died in the flu pandemic, life expectancy declined 11.8 years from the previous year, Dr. Arias said, down to 39. Numbers fully rebounded the following year.
Even if such a rebound occurs this time, the social and economic effects of Covid-19 will linger, researchers noted, as will disproportionate effects on people of color. Some researchers said that drug deaths, which began surging again in 2019 and 2020, may continue to lower life expectancy.
Dr. Mary T. Bassett, a former New York City health commissioner who is now a professor of health and human rights at Harvard, said that unless the country better addressed inequality, “We may see U.S. life expectancy stagnate or decline for some time to come.”
She noted that life expectancy here began to lag behind other developed countries in the 1980s. One theory is that growing economic disparities affected health. Life conditions that have exacerbated Covid-19 rates, like overcrowded housing and inadequate protections for low-wage workers, will only add to that trend, she said.
In Thursday’s figures, Black and Hispanic Americans were hit harder and the fatalities in these groups skewed younger. Over all, the death rate for Black Americans with Covid-19 was almost twice that for white Americans as of late January, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the death rate for Hispanics was 2.3 times higher than for white non-Hispanic Americans.
The 2.7-year drop in life expectancy for African-Americans from January through June of last year was the largest decline, followed by a 1.9-year drop for Hispanic Americans and a 0.8-year drop for white Americans.
Dr. Bassett said she expected life expectancy for Hispanic people to decline further over the second half of 2020, when Covid-19 death rates for that demographic continued to rise even as they dropped for white and Black Americans.
Rates of vaccination in communities of color in New York are lower than rates in largely white communities, new data shows, the latest evidence that suggests Black and brown Americans aren’t getting equal access to vaccines, even though low-income communities of color remain the hardest hit by the coronavirus.
The picture is hazy because accurate national data on race and ethnicity is lagging. But experts and leaders in these communities say the data shows that Black and Latino Americans are being vaccinated at lower rates because they face obstacles like language and technology barriers, disparities in access to medical facilities and getting to a site.
On Tuesday, officials in New York City released new data on the city’s vaccination effort by ZIP codes, showing that 1.3 million vaccine doses have been administered, and exposing discrepancies in vaccinating communities of color. That data does not break down recipients by race in each ZIP code, but New York State provides racial figures in vaccination totals, updated frequently, which also show stark differences in vaccination rates for Latino and Black residents.
President Biden has repeatedly said that racial equity is at the center of his response to the coronavirus pandemic and he appointed an adviser, Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, to tackle that. The Biden administration announced a program last week that began to ship vaccines to federally funded clinics in underserved communities.
The federal government also sent one million doses to about 6,500 retail pharmacies beginning last week. But researchers who did a county-level analysis, which included community pharmacies, federally qualified health centers, hospital outpatient departments and rural health clinics, found that more than a one-third of U.S. counties have two or fewer of those facilities.
This makes access to vaccines more difficult, according to the study from the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy and West Health Policy Center.
While vaccine hesitancy may play a role in communities of color, Sean Dickson, the director of health policy at the West Health Policy Center, said that the study shows evidence of effects from systemic health infrastructure issues.
“It’s important that we don’t rest on vaccine hesitancy as a crutch,” Mr. Dickson said, adding that it could sometimes be used to blame minority communities. “If we don’t do anything to better affirmatively distribute the vaccines in these communities, then it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
In the Brownsville area of Brooklyn, Renee Muir, the director of development and community relations at the BMS Family Health Center, said she is developing a survey to gather evidence of the challenges affecting the community. Many residents have been deeply affected by the virus because of adverse health conditions and unemployment.
“Now you’re talking about people making decisions to spend $6 round trip, or eating, or paying a phone bill,” Ms. Muir said about residents traveling to get a vaccine.
On messaging platforms like WhatsApp and on social media, Latinos have been exposed to vaccine misinformation, said Dr. Valeria Daniela Lucio Cantos, an infectious disease specialist at Emory University. She has been working to help Latinos understand the vaccine and make appointments.
“There’s this emphasis on the risk and not enough on the benefits of the vaccines,” she said.
But while many older Americans struggle with the online system to register for a vaccine, sites only available in English presented an additional barrier, Dr. Cantos said.
“It feels like the system built for vaccine distribution did not have the Latinx community in mind,” she said, using the gender-neutral term for Latinos. She added that vaccine sites asking for Social Security numbers or insurance numbers made it difficult for undocumented immigrants to feel safe.
As vaccine supplies ramp up, Dr. Paulina Rebolledo, an assistant professor at Emory, hopes that officials begin to rethink their approach by mobilizing with organizations within communities of color that are trusted by residents and speak various languages.
“We, on the provider side or the health care side, can try to do more to reach patients and have them hear our voices,” she said. “It’s their overall health we’re trying to work on, and this is just an integral part of the movement.”
One million counterfeit N95 masks were seized by federal agents on Wednesday as part of a sweeping fraud investigation stemming from the pandemic, the head of the Department of Homeland Security announced.
The seizure brought the total number of knockoff masks confiscated in recent weeks to more than 11 million, Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, said during a news conference.
Mr. Mayorkas appeared next to several boxes of masks that had been seized and were stamped with the name 3M, the largest American producer of N95s.
Officials said that the company had been working with investigators to identify sources of counterfeit masks, which originated in China, and that the department expected to make arrests.
Officials also said federal agents had executed search warrants in five states in the past two weeks but would not identify which ones.
The snug-fitting N95 masks, which provide 95 percent efficiency in filtering airborne particles, have become the gold standard for frontline workers in the pandemic. But the intense demand for the masks, which are considered superior to the ubiquitous pleated ones, has given rise to the production of counterfeits.
Steve K. Francis, an assistant director for the Global Trade Investigations Division of Homeland Security Investigations, said during the news conference that there could be deadly repercussions from the sale of counterfeit N95 masks.
“They’re extremely dangerous,” Mr. Francis said. “They’re providing a false sense of security to our first line responders, to American consumers.”
Roughly a third of America’s military personnel are declining to receive coronavirus vaccines when they are offered, Pentagon officials said Wednesday.
The refusal rate is slightly above that of the civilian population, and is the same for active-duty troops and for those in the National Guard, who have been helping state governments administer coronavirus tests and vaccines.
About 960,000 members of the military and its contractors have been vaccinated, Robert G. Salesses, the acting assistant secretary of defense for Homeland Defense and Global Security, told members of the House Armed Services Committee at a hearing on Wednesday. As in the civilian world, the priority for administering vaccinations has been people working in heath care and those over 65.
The Pentagon can require troops to receive standard immunizations, but it cannot make Covid-19 vaccination mandatory, at least for now. That is because the vaccines have been released through federal emergency use authorizations, rather than through the normal, much lengthier approval process. So all the military can do is urge troops to get the shots, not order them to.
“We think it’s important that the department continues to communicate to our service members the safety of the vaccine,” Maj. Gen. Jeff Taliaferro, vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the hearing. He added that troops who decline the vaccine are still permitted to deploy overseas.
For the nation’s entire history, the military has recognized that disease can be far more lethal than an enemy, and it has repeatedly forced troops to be vaccinated. In 1777, George Washington was the first military leader commanding troops to take action to prevent an epidemic by ordering all of his troops to be inoculated against smallpox. That primitive vaccine posed a risk of death. Washington wrote at the time, “This expedient may be attended with some inconveniences and some disadvantages, but yet I trust in its consequences will have the most happy effects.”
In the generations since, the military has mandated troops be vaccinated against a growing list of diseases, including typhoid in 1911, tetanus in 1941, and anthrax in 1997. Today, troops are required to have several other vaccines to travel overseas.
In a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 31 percent of respondents from the general public said that they would wait until the vaccine “has been available for a while to see how it is working for other people” before getting the shot themselves. Various news reports and studies have found that refusal rates are highest among Republicans and among Hispanic adults, including many who work in health care.
Defense officials said they were studying the demographics of those in uniform who decline the vaccines, and had reached no conclusions yet.
Most states have relied on National Guard personnel to help respond to the pandemic, including assisting with vaccine distribution and even putting shots in arms.
The Biden administration recently announced that it would open 100 new vaccination sites around the country, operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and assisted by hundreds if not thousands of active-duty service members. About 1,100 troops have been deployed at the five centers that have been set up so far.
Dave Philipps contributed reporting.