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Deaths From Heart Disease and Stroke Rose Sharply During Pandemic

While the official national death toll for COVID-19 soars upward of 130,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), experts warn that the number of pandemic-related deaths is much higher.

Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond analyzed national weekly death data from January to mid-April of this year and compared it with data from the past six years. In a study published July 1, 2020, in the Journal of the American Medical Association the team tallied the sharp rise in deaths due to heart disease and stroke during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.

They found that in March through mid-April, when New York City was experiencing the height of its COVID-19 cases thus far, death rates from heart disease in the city rose by almost 400 percent. Deaths due to stroke increased by more than 350 percent in the city.

In states that had experienced the most COVID-19 deaths by the end of April — Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania — heart disease deaths nearly doubled, while stroke deaths increased 35 percent.

“The number of deaths due to COVID-19 that we hear about is an underestimate of the number of Americans dying of the pandemic,” says Steven Woolf, MD, MPH, the director emeritus at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center on Society and Health and a professor of family medicine and population health at VCU School of Medicine, who led the research. He estimates that the novel coronavirus itself accounts for only two-thirds of pandemic-related deaths, while a number of other factors are fueling a spike in deaths due to heart disease, stroke, and chronic diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes.

Dr. Woolf says that although researchers typically do not get such health data until at least one year after an event, and therefore the exact results are likely to change, it is still clear that pandemic deaths that are not a direct result of the novel coronavirus are rising. “Just how much it has increased is something that we’ll refine as we go on over the next couple of years,”

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