The Omicron coronavirus variant killed Angelenos at a higher rate than both the flu and car crashes during the early part of 2022, according to county health officials.
An analysis of death certificates from January to April found that there were 31.8 deaths from COVID-19 for every 100,000 residents of all ages in Los Angeles County. That’s nine times the comparable rate for motor vehicle deaths and more than five times that of flu and pneumonia over the same time, Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said.
During that period, there were 3.5 deaths from motor vehicle crashes for every 100,000 residents, and 5.9 deaths from the flu and pneumonia for every 100,000 residents.
Much has been said about Omicron causing milder illnesses than earlier variants — though it’s also probable that higher vaccination rates, anti-COVID-19 drugs and increased immunity from past infections all played a role in blunting the severity of the latest fall and winter wave.
While that’s true, COVID-19 continues to have deadly consequences. More than 4,800 COVID-associated deaths have been recorded this year in the nation’s most populous county — 25% in residents younger than 65.
Recent death rate data by age group underscore the still-potent power of Omicron. Between May and July, the death rate for L.A. County residents age 80 and older was three times the rate from those same months in 2021. For adults 65 to 79, the death rate was 1½ times that of the prior year. By contrast, death rates fell among younger adults.
“For some people in the community, as time has gone by, their risk for COVID actually hasn’t been reduced in spite of the fact that we have great tools that, overall, have led to dramatic declines in mortality rates,” Ferrer said during a recent briefing.
There are a few possible explanations. Coronavirus transmission was much more widespread and enduring during the middle part of this year compared with last, given the ultra-contagious nature of Omicron. A higher number of infections means additional chances that someone may fall seriously ill.
The timing is also not a perfect comparison, as the May-through-July period this year covers the height of the second Omicron wave, whereas last year’s Delta surge struck a bit later in the summer.
It’s also possible that some older residents this year were further removed from their last vaccine dose — an important factor because protection wanes over time. Also, the Omicron variant is more likely to cause breakthrough infections among vaccinated people compared with earlier strains.
But even among middle-aged adults, there was a higher death rate for COVID-19 earlier this year than for car crashes.
Among adults 50 to 64, the death rate for COVID-19 was eight times the rate for motor vehicle crashes and 12 times the rate for flu and pneumonia, the county’s analysis found.
And among those in their 30s and 40s, the death rate for COVID-19 was more than 1½ times that of motor vehicle crashes and 21 times the rate for the flu and pneumonia.
For the youngest adults — ages 18 to 29 — the death rate for COVID-19 was higher than flu and pneumonia but only about one-fifth that of motor vehicle crashes.
Another analysis found that, during the first year of the pandemic, COVID-19 stole the most years of human life from premature death compared with other leading causes.
L.A. County researchers defined premature death as one that occurred before age 75. By that measure, COVID-19 was responsible for almost 79,000 years of potential life lost countywide in 2020 — nearly as many as the combined total of liver disease, diabetes, stroke and lung cancer.
Causes of premature death also rose because of other reasons. The years of potential life lost due to drug overdose climbed by 65% between 2019 and 2020, according to Ferrer. In fact, most of the top causes of death in 2020 increased from 2019.
While COVID-19 was undoubtedly deadly during the first year of the pandemic, disruptions at work, school, obtaining healthcare and in social lives very likely had a detrimental effect on overall well-being too, Ferrer said. COVID-19 vaccines were not broadly available until 2021.
“The sobering data on COVID-19 mortality and premature deaths due to COVID helps us understand why it remains important to continue to take steps that limit the spread of COVID-19 and protect those most vulnerable to severe illness and death,” she said.
L.A. County is hardly unique in experiencing such impacts from the coronavirus. CDC data presented last week showed that since April, COVID-19 hospitalization rates in older people increased far more dramatically compared with younger people.
And while vaccinations have helped dramatically improve COVID-19 mortality, older people who have completed their primary vaccination series can still end up with severe illness and die, Ferrer said. Besides failing to get vaccinated or getting up-to-date on booster shots, factors that may affect the risk of dying include underlying health problems and repeat coronavirus infections.
According to a recent report released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, overall life expectancy in the United States declined by an average of 1.8 years from 2019 to 2020, “mostly due to the COVID-19 pandemic and increases in unintentional injuries,” such as drug overdoses.
In the U.S., life expectancy fell from 78.8 to 77 years. California’s fell by 1.9 years, from 80.9 to 79.
New York observed the worst decrease in life expectancy between 2019 to 2020, falling by three years, from 80.7 to 77.7. The District of Columbia saw a reduction in life expectancy of 2.7 years; Louisiana and New Jersey, 2.6 years; and Arizona and Mississippi, 2.5 years.
The five states that saw the least reduction in life expectancy were Hawaii, New Hampshire, Maine, Washington and Oregon. Those states each had less than a year’s worth of reduction in their life expectancy between 2019 and 2020.
Of the 50 states in 2020, Hawaii had the highest life expectancy, of 80.7 years, and California had the fourth highest. Mississippi had the lowest, with 71.9 years.
On Aug. 31, health officials released provisional life expectancy estimates for 2021. Officials said the U.S. life expectancy for 2021 fell by an additional 0.9 of a year from 2020, dropping to 76.1 years — the lowest on record since 1996. State-level estimates were not available for 2021.
Among race and ethnic groups, Native Americans experienced the largest decline in life expectancy, dropping 6.6 years from 71.8 in 2019 to 65.2 in 2021. That’s “the same life expectancy of the total U.S. population in 1944,” the report said.
Latino residents’ life expectancy fell by 4.2 years, from 81.9 to 77.7. Black residents’ life expectancy declined by four years, from 74.8 to 70.8. White residents’ life expectancy decreased by 2.4 years, from 78.8 to 76.4. And Asian Americans’ life expectancy dropped by 2.1 years, from 85.6 to 83.5.
The reports defined life expectancy as a hypothetical cohort that would be subject throughout its lifetime to age-specific death rates prevailing for the population in the year that was analyzed. The number reflects “a snapshot of current mortality experience and showing the long-range implications of a set of age-specific death rates that prevailed in a given year,” the report said.
L.A. County’s weekly COVID-19 death tally is declining but remains elevated. For the seven-day period that ended Thursday, the region recorded 78 deaths, significantly above the springtime low of 24 deaths recorded from May 4 to May 10. The summer peak was 122 deaths in a week, tallied between July 31 and Aug. 6.
L.A. County reported about 1,800 coronavirus cases a day for the seven-day period ending Thursday, a 30% week-over-week decline and a 74% drop from the summer peak of nearly 6,900 cases a day.
The latest case and death rates may be somewhat artificially depressed because of a lag in reporting over the Labor Day holiday.
With case and hospitalization rates on the downswing, L.A. County last week dropped into the low COVID-19 community level defined by the CDC. The last time L.A. County was in this level — which “reflects minimal stress on the hospital care system,” Ferrer said — was in early May.
Other Southern California counties that slid into the low COVID-19 community level last week were San Diego, Ventura and Santa Barbara. Riverside County entered the low COVID-19 community level on Aug. 25. Orange County entered the low COVID-19 community level on Thursday; San Bernardino County remains in medium, where it has been for weeks.
As of Thursday, there were only four California counties in the high COVID-19 community level — Kern, Merced, Madera and Kings — accounting for less than 4% of the state’s population.
Still, the risk of being exposed to the coronavirus remains elevated across much of California. On a per capita basis as of Thursday, L.A. County was reporting 126 coronavirus cases a week for every 100,000 residents. A rate of 100 or more is considered high.
At a briefing at a vaccination center at the Balboa Sports Complex in Encino on Thursday, Ferrer urged the public to get their updated bivalent booster shots, designed not only against the original coronavirus but also the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants that are dominant nationwide.
“Vaccines are here,” Ferrer said. “By getting this bivalent booster, everyone eligible will be able to have greatly increased protection against the current strains of the virus, providing increased protection against both severe disease and even getting infected in the first place.”
Ferrer added: “With this new bivalent vaccine, we might reduce our chances of a third huge winter surge of COVID since we have a pretty good match with what’s circulating.”
Officials continue to recommend residents take some precautions when gathering — including testing before events, meeting outdoors if possible, maximizing ventilation by opening windows and using air filters indoors, and wearing a mask indoors when around people whose coronavirus status is unknown.
“We still have a highly transmissible variant that is capable of reinfecting people who have already been infected. It makes sense to be cautious still and to take some simple steps to just reduce the risk of either getting or giving COVID to anyone,” Ferrer said.