THURSDAY, April 1, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- In a finding that illustrates the heavy toll the pandemic has taken on America, a new government report confirms that COVID-19 became the third leading cause of death in 2020.
Researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that more than 547,000 lives have been lost to COVID-19 since the pandemic began last spring. Only the two long-term biggest killers, heart disease and cancer, killed more Americans in 2020.
In 2020 alone, COVID-19 was the cause or a contributing factor in the deaths of 377,883 people in the United States, or just over 11% of the estimated 3.3 million people who passed away last year, CBS News reported. Meanwhile, heart disease caused 690,882 deaths and cancer caused 598,932 deaths.
The highest death rates from COVID-19 were recorded among those over 85, Native Americans, Hispanics and men, CBS News reported, with Hispanics being hit the hardest. The pandemic claimed nearly double the number of lives as "unintentional injuries," which was the third leading cause of death in 2019.
"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 soon as possible," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a media briefing Wednesday, NPR reported.
2020 was already the deadliest year in U.S. history. The CDC had recently estimated that average life expectancy plummeted an entire year during the first half of 2020, CBS News reported.
Some have questioned the CDC's death toll tally, which relies largely on state and local officials determining the cause of death, CBS News reported. But in a second report published in the CDC publication Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on Wednesday, the CDC concluded that the tally of COVID-19 deaths was likely accurate. Examining the death certificate data, the agency found 97% of the cases had documented other details consistent with the disease, CBS News reported.
The reports come as the CDC has warned that a months-long decline in the rate of coronavirus deaths has stalled.
Pfizer vaccine safe in kids as young as 12
Pfizer Inc. announced Wednesday that its coronavirus vaccine is safe and remarkably effective in children as young as 12.
In a news release issued by Pfizer and its vaccine development partner, BioNTech, company executives said data from a trial of the vaccine in nearly 2,300 people between the ages of 12 and 15 will be submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the coming weeks.
"We share the urgency to expand the authorization of our vaccine to use in younger populations and are encouraged by the clinical trial data from adolescents between the ages of 12 and 15," Pfizer Chairman and CEO Albert Bourla said in the news release. "We plan to submit these data to FDA as a proposed amendment to our Emergency Use Authorization in the coming weeks and to other regulators around the world, with the hope of starting to vaccinate this age group before the start of the next school year."
In the Phase 3 trial, the vaccine was 100 percent effective at preventing symptomatic illness within the trial, with 18 cases of COVID-19 in the group that received a placebo and none in the group that received the vaccine, the companies said. The vaccine triggered immune responses that were even more robust than those seen in young adults.
Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale University, told The New York Times that she had expected antibody levels in adolescents to be comparable to those in young adults. "But they're getting even better levels from the vaccines," she said. "That's really incredible."
The finding is the beginning of what many families have been anxiously waiting to see, though the companies did not release detailed data from the trial, which has not yet been peer-reviewed or published in a medical journal. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is now authorized by the FDA for emergency use for people aged 16 and older.
Last week, Pfizer-BioNTech also started a trial in younger children, aged 6 months to 11 years. That trial will first establish a safe dose first in children 5 to 11, then in 2- to 5-year-olds and then in children from 6 months to 2 years, the companies said.
"We all long for a normal life. This is especially true for our children. The initial results we have seen in the adolescent studies suggest that children are particularly well protected by vaccination," BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin said in the companies' news release.
Moderna is also conducting similar trials to test its coronavirus vaccine in teenagers and young children. Its vaccine is authorized by the FDA for emergency use for people over age 18.
Biden calls for return to mask mandates as cases rise
As new coronavirus cases begin to rise again across America, President Joe Biden on Monday called on governors to bring back state mask mandates.
Just hours earlier, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, delivered an emotional plea to Americans to keep following social distancing measures to stem the spread of COVID-19.
The former Harvard Medical School professor and infectious disease specialist described "a feeling of nausea" she experienced last year when, caring for patients at Massachusetts General Hospital, she saw the corpses of COVID-19 victims piled up, overflowing from the morgue. She recalled how she stood -- "gowned, gloved, masked, shielded" -- as the last one in a hospital room before a patient died alone.
"I am asking you to just hold on a little longer, to get vaccinated when you can, so that all of those people that we all love will still be here when this pandemic ends," Walensky said during a media briefing.
Walensky appeared to fight back tears as she admitted to feeling a sense of "impending doom" about a possible fourth surge in infections.
As of Sunday, the seven-day average of new virus cases was about 63,000, the Times reported. That was up from 54,000 a day two weeks earlier, an increase of more than 16 percent.
Although nearly 1 in 3 American adults have received at least one shot and almost one-fifth have gotten their second shot, the nation is nowhere near herd immunity yet, the Times reported. That tipping point comes when spread of a virus slows because so many people, estimated at 70 to 90 percent of the population, are immune to it.
But states are rapidly expanding access to coronavirus vaccines, the Times reported. On Monday, at least six more states -- Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, North Dakota, Ohio and Oklahoma -- made all adults eligible for vaccination. New York has said that all adults will be eligible for the vaccines starting April 6.
Still, COVID-19 cases have risen more than 40 percent in nine states over the past two weeks, the Times reported. Michigan has been hit hardest, seeing a 133 percent increase, and the Northeast has also seen an uptick in cases. Connecticut reported a 62 percent jump over the past two weeks, while New York and Pennsylvania have both reported increases of more than 40 percent, the newspaper reported.
Other hot spots included North Dakota, where cases rose by nearly 60 percent, and Minnesota, where cases have risen 47 percent, the Times reported.
A global scourge
By Thursday, the U.S. coronavirus case count passed 30.4 million while the death toll passed 550,500, according to a Times tally. On Thursday, the top five states for coronavirus infections were: California with over 3.6 million cases; Texas with nearly 2.8 million cases; Florida with over 2 million cases; New York with over 1.8 million cases; and Illinois with over 1.2 million cases.
Curbing the spread of the coronavirus in the rest of the world remains challenging.
In Brazil, the coronavirus case count was over 12.6 million by Thursday, with more than 317,000 deaths, a Johns Hopkins University tally showed. India had over 12.1 million cases and over 162,400 deaths as of Thursday, the Hopkins tally showed.
Worldwide, the number of reported infections passed 128.3 million on Thursday, with over 2.8 million deaths recorded, according to the Hopkins tally.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on the new coronavirus.
SOURCES: CBS News; NPR; The New York Times