2020 death data paints grim picture of COVID-19’s human toll

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COVID-19 has added tens of thousands of deaths to the state's annual average.

Florida’s death rate went up by one additional death per 1,000 residents in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the state for 10 months.

Preliminary cause-of-death data now available through the Florida Department of Health gives a raw approximation to the worst toll of the virus in the Sunshine State.

The state has been tallying deaths caused by COVID-19, and that death toll exceeded 21,000 by the end of 2020, which also works out to about 1 per 1,000 residents. The broader Department of Health vital statistics data, now complete and available online in at least a provisional form for the year, put those deaths in context of the state’s normal rates of death.

COVID-19’s impact clearly was an additional toll on the state, not a replacement cause of death.

Each year, from 2015 through 2019, deaths in Florida amounted to just under 10 deaths per 1,000 residents. The rate was 9.7 deaths per 1,000 residents in 2019.

In 2020 deaths in Florida amounted to just over 11 deaths per 1,000 residents, 11.1 to be precise, at least based on provisional numbers.

Put another way, there were 16% more death in Florida in 2020 than there were in 2019.

Those rates are based on vital statistics and population estimates that the department maintains and posts online, and analyzed by Florida Politics.

The department’s vital statistics data do not directly identify COVID-19 deaths. And there is no easy correlation with the fatalities found in daily COVID-19 reports that the department has published since the outbreak began last March.

Consequently, the vital statistics do not clarify how much COVID-19 directly increased Florida’s death rate.

On one hand, presumably, some people who died of COVID-19 might have otherwise perished of other causes in 2020. The virus is brutal to people who already are sick or whose bodies are compromised.

On the other hand, the 21,890 deaths officially attributed to COVID-19 through Jan. 1, 2021, are not enough to account for the full increase in deaths that the state suffered in 2020 compared with 2019, according to the vital statistics.

The department recorded 32,281 more deaths in 2020 than it did in 2019. Florida’s steadily rising population naturally leads to annual increases in total deaths statewide. But in the previous four years the highest single-year increase was 6,117 fatalities. That would suggest Florida suffered more than 25,000 deaths above normal trends in 2020.

In the vital statistics, most of the COVID-19 deaths presumably fall under the broader “infectious diseases” category of causes of death. There were 18,516 more of those deaths reported in 2020 than in 2019, a 405% increase compared with 2019, according to the vital statistics.

There also were significant increases in 2020 in the cause-of-death categories of “cardiovascular diseases (2,510),” “other causes (2,401)” and “Symptoms, Signs & Abnormal Findings (4,179).” The department also put 1,925 deaths in an “unknown” category, presumably awaiting final medical examiner findings. The “unknown” category was zeroed out for previous years’ data.

Florida’s largest counties with the highest COVID-19 rates saw the largest increases in total deaths. Miami-Dade County, for example, had 4,239 deaths attributed to COVID-19 by the end of 2020, according to the COVID-19 reports. Miami-Dade’s total increase in deaths in 2020, compared with 2019, was 5,473 additional deaths, according to the vital statistics. Broward County saw 2,708 additional deaths in 2020; Palm Beach County, 2,370; Hillsborough County, 1,846; Orange County, 1,407; Duval County, 1,343; Polk county, 1,208; Pinellas County, 1,102; and Lee county, 1,074. That list is similar to the lineup of counties with the highest COVID-19 death tolls reported by the Department of Health.

However, when death rates are factored by population, a different picture emerges of the potential impact of COVID-19. Twenty Florida counties saw their total death tolls increase at a rate of at least two additional deaths per 1,000 residents in 2020.

Many of those counties were very low-population, so that a handful of additional deaths could make death rates soar. Some, however, were of medium-size population for Florida, including Citrus, Sumter, Charlotte, and Martin counties.

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected].


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