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Carla K. Johnson
Associated Press

The COVID-19 pandemic pushed total U.S. deaths last year beyond 3.3 million, the nation’s highest annual death toll, the government reported Wednesday.

The coronavirus caused approximately 375,000 deaths, and was the third leading cause of death in 2020, after heart disease and cancer. COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. now top 550,000 since the start of the pandemic.

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From left to right, Norma Kennedy and her two daughters, Diane Kennedy and Cindy Mohr. (Photo courtesy of their family)

COVID-19 displaced suicide as one of the top 10 causes of death, according to the report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The data should serve again as a catalyst for each of us to continue to do our part to drive down cases and reduce the spread of COVID-19 and get people vaccinated as quickly as possible,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday.

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Thomas "Butch" Sanders died from COVID-19 complications on Nov. 21 in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Photo Courtesy of Deborah "Jeannie" Sanders

The U.S. death toll increases most years, but last year’s death rate was up nearly 16 percent compared to the previous year. That’s the largest one-year leap since 1918, when U.S. soldier deaths in World War I and the flu pandemic pushed deaths up 46 percent compared with 1917.

Death rates last year overall were highest among Black people and American Indian and Alaska Native people. The COVID-19 death rate was highest among Hispanic people.

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Gloria Kellogg (middle) with her husband and three children. (Photo courtesy of The Kellogg family)

“Sadly, based on the current state of the pandemic, these impacts have remained in 2021 where we continue to see that communities of color account for an outsize portions of these deaths,” Walensky said.

Preliminary data in December suggested 2020 would be an especially deadly year and the CDC's new report showed it was even worse than anticipated. The new numbers are still considered preliminary and are based on an analysis of death certificates.

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Elvia “Rose” Ramirez, Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community tribal member, died at 17-years-old from COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Susan Three Irons.

Typically, analyzing death certificates takes about 11 months. But the CDC speeded up the timeline, the report said, to address “the pressing need for updated, quality data during the global COVID-19 pandemic.”

In a separate report, the CDC responded to concerns about deaths being misattributed to COVID-19. The agency took a close look at death certificates, finding that most that listed COVID-19 also named other contributing problems. They included conditions such as diabetes, known to increase the danger of severe disease, or conditions such as pneumonia that occurred in the chain of events leading to the deaths.

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From top left to right: Kenneth L. Jewett Jr. and Wesley D. "Shep" Fire Cloud. From bottom left to right: Ethel Left Hand Bull and Randolph “Randy” His Law Jr. (Photos courtesy of Janice Howe Adrian)

Only about 5 percent of the death certificates listed only COVID-19, and that was more frequently the case when the person died at home.

The CDC said its review confirms the accuracy of the death count for COVID-19. 

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