The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, February 10, 2021 1:00 am

State deaths surge 18% in 2020

Of almost 77,000 who died, 9,390 tied to COVID-19

TOM DAVIES | Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS – A larger surge of coronavirus deaths in Indiana during December than was initially reported contributed to an 18% jump in the state's overall deaths during 2020.

Preliminary totals from the Indiana Department of Health show nearly 77,000 died in the state last year – an increase of almost 11,000 from 2019 – as nationwide deaths also jumped with the global pandemic.

The large increase came as health officials have recorded at least 9,390 COVID-19 deaths during 2020.

State health officials haven't yet released a break down on how coronavirus-related deaths compared with those from heart disease and cancer, which have been the most common causes of deaths in other recent years.

No factor other than the COVID-19 explains the increase in mortality, said Shandy Dearth, an epidemiologist at Indiana University's Fairbanks School of Public Health.

“You can almost argue that our deaths should have been lower because think about the time we spent at home, we didn't have the car accidents, we weren't having some of the workplace injuries and deaths and things like that as the country shut down,” Dearth said. “But we didn't have a total decrease in deaths, we definitely saw an increase in deaths. And that's definitely related to COVID.”

Indiana has recorded almost 12,000 coronavirus-related deaths since the state's first confirmed fatality last March, with the state health department Tuesday adding 67 recent deaths to that total.

In Allen County, 2020 saw 4,920 deaths as of mid-December, compared with 4,676 deaths during all of 2019 and 4,749 in 2018. Local health officials have said they believe the overall increase in deaths this year is likely attributed to COVID-19.

State officials last week added about 1,500 COVID-19 deaths Indiana's toll that were found during an audit of death certificates and state health department reports. Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box blamed the undercount of deaths on the speed in which COVID-19 deaths had to be tracked.

Those revised figures boosted the peak of Indiana's seven-day rolling average of COVID-19 deaths to 102 in mid-December, rather than the previously reported peak average of 86 a day. Indiana had 20 straight days during December when that average topping 90 deaths, with the deadliest one-day total of 119 fatalities on Dec. 29.

The state's some 1,900 coronavirus deaths in November and almost 3,000 in December were the state's deadliest, dropping back down to about 1,900 during January. The rolling daily death average has also declined to about 40 per day currently.

Gov. Eric Holcomb cited the increase in total deaths during 2020 in defending the decision to so far limit COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to health care workers and those ages 65 and older, while waiting until dose availability improves before adding teachers or other essential workers.

“Where we're starting is – how do we save lives and who is most at risk? – and work our way down,” Holcomb said.

Indiana's deaths from last year totaled about 12,000 more than the state's average deaths during the previous five years, according to statistics from the state health department.

Dearth, the Indiana University epidemiologist, said the state's coronavirus death toll could still be undercounted because of limited testing availability during the early months of the pandemic.

While there has been doubt among some people about the reality of the coronavirus impact, Dearth said she believed the big increases in hospitalizations and deaths during the fall and winter has changed many minds.

“I think people have kind of come around to realize that COVID is a real thing,” Dearth said. “And it really has caused a huge issue here in the country.”

Sign up for our daily headlines newsletter

Top headlines are sent daily