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Virginia's Other Pandemic Deaths

Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center

After a year of deaths from COVID-19, researchers say that the toll is significantly higher, from both unaccounted deaths from COVID and mortality indirectly caused by the pandemic. 

“Whenever you see a statistic on how many people have died of COVID-19, whether it's for Virginia or the country, that represents about 70% of the excess deaths that have actually occurred,” said Steven Woolf, a  physician and researcher with Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center on Society and Health. “Another way of thinking about it is for every two people who are known to have died from COVID-19, there's an additional death.”

Excess deaths measures how many more people have died than what experts expect in a typical year. These numbers include people who died from COVID-19 but their death was not properly documented, such as people who die before they receive a COVID test.

Sunday Virginia marks one year since a man in his 70s died from Covid-19. He was the first of 9,902 people who have died from the virus, officially.

As the pandemic started Woolf thought ahead to those that the virus would claim that would escape official accounting for the pandemic. 

“People in my line of work immediately connected the dots and realized that this was going to have ripple effects that affect health beyond the patients who were affected by the virus.” 

Excess deaths fall into three categories in Woolf’s work: acute emergencies that can’t be addressed to the overwhelmed healthcare system, chronic disease that patients aren’t able to manage, and behavioral health crises such as substance overdoses. 

Like the virus, Woolf says excess deaths disproportionately impacted Black, Latino, and other underserved communities.

“Racial and ethnic inequity in health outcomes during COVID-19 is only a new example of a very old problem,” he said. “Once the pandemic is in the rear view mirror and everybody's vaccinated and we're all back at football games and so forth,  we're not going to realize that that problem has definitely not gone away.”

Other lasting health issues from the pandemic will include those that missed preventative health screenings, allowing disease to progress and be harder to treat. It could also include poor nutrition in children who became less food-secure due to unemployment or access to school meals.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Jahd Khalil is a reporter and producer in Richmond.
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