COVID-19 was the third-leading cause of death in 2020 and 2021 behind heart disease and cancer, Arizona data shows, but some health experts say that isn’t telling the full story of its lethal effects in the state.
The provisional cause-of-death rankings from the Arizona Department of Health Services mirror a national analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation that shows the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 was the third-leading cause of death behind heart disease and cancer in the U.S. in both 2020 and 2021.
The Kaiser Family Foundation’s analysis, using mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says COVID-19 is on track to remain the third-leading cause of death nationally in 2022. State data indicates that COVID-19 will likely continue to be a leading cause of death in Arizona in 2022, although whether it will remain the third-leading cause is unclear.
While the data on its face is sobering, it does not fully illustrate the brutality of COVID-19 in Arizona, some health experts say, including the loss of life expectancy for all Arizonans that occurred during the pandemic, and how communities of color were hit especially hard. Known COVID-19 deaths in Arizona as of Dec. 14 were nearing 32,000.
“We had the fifth-highest drop in life expectancy in the country, and you can’t ignore that,” said Swapna Reddy, a clinical associate professor in the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University. “Certain demographics and certain communities were just hit extra hard in this state.
There’s no way to sugarcoat that. And especially I’m talking about how our Native communities and our Latino community experienced this pandemic differently than the rest of the population.”
Agnes Attakai, a member of the Navajo Nation and public health expert, lost 13 family members to COVID-19. She said that level of loss is typical among the tribal members she knows.
“I am not alone as a Navajo who has lost family - Navajo folks that I know, Navajo students at the UA, all have lost people to COVID,” said Attakai, who is director of health disparities outreach and prevention education for the Center for Health Equality at the University of Arizona’s Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. From her own experience and what she knows from other Navajo friends and family, it feels to Attakai as though COVID-19 has been the No. 1 cause of death among tribal members for the past couple of years, she said.
The average life expectancy for a Native American or Alaskan Native person in the U.S. as of 2021 had dropped to 65.2 years old, compared with the U.S. average of 76.1 years old, a recent federal analysis of provisional data says.
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