Coronavirus has claimed 2.5 million years of potential life in the US, study finds

Katherine J. Wu, The New York Times

Posted at Oct 22 2020 05:54 PM

Carolina Sanchez, wife of JBS USA meat packing plant employee Saul Sanchez, reacts at his funeral after he died of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Greeley, Colorado, US, April 15, 2020. Jim Urquhart, ReutersFile Photo

In less than a year, the coronavirus has killed more than 220,000 Americans. But even that staggering number downplays the true toll of the pandemic, according to a recent analysis.

Every death represents years of potential life lost, years that might otherwise have been filled with rich memories of family, friends, productivity and joy — trips to the grocery store, late night conversations on the phone, tearful firsts with a newborn baby.

“Think of everything that a person does in a year,” said Dr. Stephen Elledge, a geneticist at Harvard.

In the new analysis, which has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, Elledge added up those years. He tabulated the ages of Americans known to have died of COVID-19, and tallied the number of years they might have lived had they reached a typical life expectancy.

His calculations show that the coronavirus has claimed more than 2.5 million years of potential life in the United States since the start of 2020. Nearly half of those years were taken from people under the age of 65.

The numbers, Elledge said, magnify a dimension of the pandemic’s toll that can’t be captured by absolute deaths alone, and underscore the importance of taming the virus to protect everyone, regardless of age.

“These are everyday people who are dying,” said Dr. Utibe Essien, a physician and health equity researcher at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine who was not involved in the analysis. “They’re losing time with their kids, their grandkids, their opportunities to build their futures.” Essien was one of several experts who reviewed the study at the request of The New York Times.

The report comes just days after scientists published a high-profile and discredited declaration arguing that businesses and schools should be quickly opened and that people “who are not vulnerable” to the virus — presumably the young and healthy — should return to “life as normal” while older Americans remain cloistered from the coronavirus.

Despite making up only one-fifth of the total recorded deaths related to COVID-19, people under 65 accounted for nearly 1.2 million years of potential life that had been lost to the virus. Older people made up the remaining 1.4 million years in Dr. Elledge’s count.

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