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Nearly 90% of COVID Deaths Are Now 65 and Older

COVID-19 cell

November 29, 2022

(WAPO) Now, more than ever, it is a plague of the elderly.

More than 300 people are still dying each day on average from covid-19, most of them 65 or older, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While that’s much lower than the 2,000 daily toll at the peak of the delta wave, it is still roughly two to three times the rate at which people die of the flu — renewing debate about what is an “acceptable loss.”

And while older Americans have consistently been the worst hit during the crisis, as evident in the scores of early nursing home deaths, that trend has become more pronounced. Today, nearly 9 in 10 covid deaths are in people 65 or older — the highest rate ever, according to a Washington Post analysis of CDC data.

Some epidemiologists and demographers predict the trend of older, sicker and poorer people dying at disproportionate rates will continue, raising hard questions about the trade-offs Americans are making in pursuit of normalcy — and at whose expense. The situation mirrors the way some other infectious diseases, such as malaria and polio, rage in the developing world while they are largely ignored elsewhere.

S. Matthew Liao, a professor of bioethics, philosophy and public health at New York University said, “there’s a bit of ageism, so to speak, attached to it,” he said, adding, “People, even if they are older, they still have as much claim to live as me.”

In an open letter published Oct. 7 in the BMJ, formerly the British Medicine Journal, Gregg Gonsalves, an associate professor at the Yale School of Public Health, and about a dozen other experts emphasized that “pandemics do not end with a flip of the switch.”

“Despite the widespread belief that the pandemic is over, death and disruption continue,” they wrote.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky and other officials have justified their pandemic reset by emphasizing that Americans have more tools to fight the coronavirus than they did a year or two ago. This includes not only vaccines, booster shots and rapid tests, but antiviral pills that can be taken at home and have been shown to greatly reduce severe illness and death if taken early.

“We can now prevent almost all of the deaths that are happening,” she said at a news briefing this month.

However, Walensky acknowledged that deaths among the elderly, especially those with multiple chronic conditions, is “a real challenge.”

New ‘normal’

A recent CDC report on covid-19 mortality contained more good news — most notably, a rapid drop in deaths beginning in March that led to a relatively stable period from April through September when there were 2,000 to 4,500 deaths weekly.

But the reduced death toll has not been experienced equally among all age groups.

The proportion of deaths among those 65 or older has fluctuated from eight out of 10 in the first few months of the pandemic, to a low of 6 out of 10 when the delta wave struck in the summer of 2021, to a high of 9 out of 10 today.

Last month, people 85 and older represented 41.4 percent of deaths, those 75 to 84 were 30 percent of deaths, and those 65 to 74 were 17.5 percent of deaths, according to a Post analysis. All told, the 65-plus age group accounted for nearly 90 percent of covid deaths in the United States despite being only 16 percent of the population.

The vulnerability of older people to viruses is neither surprising, nor new. The more we age, the more we accumulate scars from previous illness and chronic conditions that put us at higher risk of severe illness.

When it comes to the coronavirus, though, deaths in Americans over 65 fell dramatically after the arrival of the original series of vaccines since seniors were the most likely to get them. But booster rates for older Americans are now lagging: According to the CDC, 98 percent of those ages 65 to 74 and 96 percent of people 75 and over completed an initial two-shot course. Those rates fall to 22 and 25 percent respectively for the new omicron-specific booster.

To minimize further loss of life ahead of a feared winter surge, the White House announced Tuesday that it was launching a six-week push to increase booster uptake in seniors and other groups that have been disproportionately affected.

“The final message I give you from this podium is that please, for your own safety, for that of your family, get an updated covid-19 shot as soon as you’re eligible, to protect yourself, your family and your community,” Anthony S. Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, said during the briefing, billed as his last before he retires next month.