State epidemiologist: COVID-19 deaths down more than 50% in 2021, but virus will remain a leading cause of death for ‘years to come’

KELOLAND.com Original

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — One year ago, South Dakota experienced its deadliest month ever. 

The state health department recorded 1,431 total deaths in November 2020, nearly half of those deaths (700) were people with COVID-19. One year later, the state finds itself in a much better position, but state epidemiologist Dr. Joshua Clayton still warned COVID-19 deaths continue to play a substantial role in the state’s overall mortality report.  

“We do anticipate it to be one of those leading causes of death for probably several years to come,” Clayton told KELOLAND News. “I’m hopeful we’ll have more opportunities to decrease that risk over time and it could fall out of the top 10. But right now, it is out there. It is infecting individuals, and it is causing hospitalization and death.” 

Clayton emphasized there’s been a more than 50% reduction in total COVID-19 deaths in 2021 compared to 2020. With roughly two months remaining, there’s been a total of 567 COVID-19 deaths in 2021. In 2020, there were 1,668 COVID-19 deaths. Since the start of the pandemic, there’s been a total of 2,235 COVID-19 deaths. 

“The huge impact this does have on communities — the loss of friends, family and loved ones,” Clayton said. “I think that’s something key to recognize.”

In terms of overall mortality in South Dakota, the first eight months of 2021 have trended much more similar to previous years like 2019, 2018 and 2017. The main differences in 2021 have been the number of total deaths during the months of January and August. Those two months are higher than the number of total deaths observed in previous years. You can view a breakdown of South Dakota’s total deaths in the graph below. 

“We do see that COVID-19 has been a large participant in the cause of death,” Clayton said. “We know that both for 2020 and 2021, COVID-19 will continue to be in the leading causes of death in the United States and in South Dakota.” 

In 2020, COVID-19 was the third-highest cause of death behind heart disease and cancer. Through the first five months of 2021, COVID-19 remained the third-highest cause of death overall, but in some months, COVID-19 was behind heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, unintentional injuries, Chronic lower respiratory diseases and other causes. 

You can see more than 60 years of South Dakota death rates by month, showing Nov. 2020 as the deadliest ever recorded by the South Dakota Department of Health.

Clayton said “the landscape” of COVID-19 has changed so much in 2021 compared to 2020 it is hard to “contextualize factors that have led to decreasing overall risk of those severe infections that result in hospitalization and death.” 

One year after the deadly November peak, Clayton said the number of people who have natural immunity from COVID-19 is much bigger than a year ago. He also said people better understand how to prevent COVID-19 with vaccination, mitigation measures and protecting high-risk individuals. 

“The culmination of both leftover natural immunity, the large portion of the population that has been vaccinated, the portion of the population that has both natural infection and has their immune system boosted,” Clayton said. “Those are the defining reasons why the forecast from the CDC is that we’ll see decreasing COVID-19 cases for the next four weeks. That’s not what we were experiencing last November.”  

Clayton some of the research out there is that natural immunity exists as short as three months and as long as 17 months. 

“It’s likely not to be as long term as the COVID vaccinations are,” Clayton said. “That’s going to be an interesting comparison over time.” 

Big picture, however, Clayton said vaccinated people are experiencing poorer health outcomes at a lower rate than unvaccinated people. 

“Even though we’ve seen a number of breakthrough infections with this current Delta variant, we’re not seeing the same rate of hospitalization and death that we are with the unvaccinated population,” Clayton said.

Lastly, Clayton highlighted the role COVID-19 therapeutics have played in reducing COVID-19’s death toll. He pointed to the monoclonal antibody therapies as reducing hospitalization and deaths by 70%. He said drugmaker Merck’s antiviral pill could decrease COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths by 50%.

“There are some really good therapeutics that are helping support some decreasing COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. and South Dakota,” Clayton said. 

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