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‘Tragic toll’: 2020 is deadliest year in Rhode Island since 1918 flu pandemic

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island just experienced its deadliest year in more than a century.

A Target 12 analysis of annual mortality data dating back to 1905 shows more Rhode Islanders died in 2020 than in any other year since the influenza pandemic of 1918, as the coronavirus public health crisis coupled with soaring fatal drug overdoses to fuel 12,137 deaths.

The annual total exceeded any year during the Vietnam War or World War II, and fell just short of the 12,407 Rhode Islanders who died during the 1918 pandemic, when an unusually deadly influenza — sometimes called the “Spanish flu” – killed upward of 2,000 Rhode Islanders.

“It’s impossible to overstate the suffering Rhode Islanders have endured over the past year,” Gov. Gina Raimondo told Target 12 when presented with the numbers.

“No statistic can ever truly capture the pain and heartbreak of 2020,” she added. “COVID-19 not only led to a staggering loss of life, but it also cruelly robbed so many loved ones of the opportunity to say goodbye in-person.”

Looked at on a per-capita basis, Rhode Island in 2020 recorded the highest death rate since World War II, when nearly 500 Rhode Islanders died in combat. A comparison of death totals and census data shows that before 2020, the state’s mortality rate had slowly declined since 1918, when it peaked at 20.5 deaths per 1,000 residents in 1918.  

The rate fell as low as 9.1 deaths per capita in 2012, but it has increased in recent years and shot back up to 11.5 deaths per capita last year – the highest rate since 1943. (One major caveat, however, is that mortality data was less reliable prior to 1960, as deaths among people of color were either underreported or not reported at all.)

The biggest contributing factor to Rhode Island’s elevated death toll last year was the coronavirus pandemic, as 1,854 people died over the course of the year after contracting the virus, representing 15% of all deaths. A Target 12 analysis of weekly death data shows there were major spikes in overall deaths when the first and second waves of COVID-19 deaths occurred in May and December.

But there were other contributing factors, such as fatal drug overdoses. At least 359 people died from drug overdoses last year, representing a 16% increase compared to 2019. It was the highest amount reported in at least seven years, according to publicly available data.

The R.I. Department of Health warned about rising overdoses in October, saying at the time, “The stressors and isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic are believed to be factors in this increase, resulting in what researchers call a syndemic, which is the amplified result of two or more diseases that exist simultaneously in a community.”

Still, the department noted that that the deadly overdoses started rising before COVID-19 in Rhode Island was first discovered in March. And health officials and law enforcement have long been concerned about people mixing more than one drug at a time, especially when substances like cocaine, methamphetamine and prescription medicine are combined with fentanyl.

“The collision between the COVID-19 and opioid epidemic has really highlighted how crucial social determinants of health — safe housing, good employment, access to mental health support — are to sustaining long-term recovery,” Dr. Jon Soske of Rhode Island Communities for Addiction Recovery said in October. “So many people have relapsed after evictions, layoffs, and traumatic losses — and these have hit racialized communities hardest.”

It’s too early to determine whether overall deaths will remain elevated during 2021, but there are some early signs that the worst of the pandemic is in the rearview mirror.

COVID-19 deaths have declined in recent weeks, after the state reported the second-highest monthly total of the pandemic in December and the third-highest total in January. At least 126 people had died after contracting the virus during February as of Friday.

Deaths tumbled in Rhode Island following the 1918 pandemic, with the total number of fatalities declining 31% to 8,522 people, according to Vital Statistics of the United States publications maintained by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

State health officials have also been scrambling to speed up vaccination efforts after a slow initial rollout that focused mainly on residents at the highest risk of contracting the virus. Health Department data out Sunday showed 12,000 more people had received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine since Friday.  

“There is no question we have been forever changed by this crisis, but I know we will come out the other side stronger and more resilient,” Raimondo said.

Nationwide, roughly a half-million Americans have died after contracting COVID-19, while nearly 44 million people had received at least one dose of a vaccine as of Sunday. Health officials are hopeful the vaccine could help tamp down infections, hospitalizations and ultimately deaths.

“This has taken a tragic toll on the United States, but we should be optimistic in my view,” former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said Sunday during an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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