Record number of deaths in Washington, Oregon in 2021
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon and Washington in 2021 surpassed their previous records for total annual deaths - records that were set just last year.
The Northwest News Network reports the coronavirus pandemic is only one part of the explanation.
In 2020, the Washington State Department of Health reported a record high of 63,180 resident deaths from all causes. The number is higher this year – 65,100 deaths as of Dec. 22, according to an agency spokeswoman. When the tally for 2021 is checked and finalized months into next year, the bottom line will probably land between 67,000 to 68,000.
Oregon recorded 40,226 resident deaths in 2020 and is on track to tally 44,000 to 45,000 deaths in 2021, according to preliminary Oregon Health Authority data.
The fatal COVID cases only account for about half of the excess deaths for the year, according to the Oregon Health Authority’s data dashboard. Washington’s percentage is closer to two-thirds.
DOH tallied 3,736 COVID deaths in Washington in 2020. When 2021 ends in a few days, Washington will probably record about 6,215 annual COVID deaths. OHA determined 1,436 Oregonians died of COVID in 2020. That figure is on track to more than double this year to an estimated 4,230 annual COVID deaths, even though vaccines have been widely available for adults since the spring.
Some of the factors behind the non-COVID surge in mortality have relatively clear cause-and-effect – last summer’s record heat wave, for example, or the rise in drug overdoses. Other explanations have plausibility, but are more difficult for researchers to pin down, such as a possible undercount of COVID deaths or the consequences of delayed health care.
Fatal drug overdoses started rising before the pandemic and kept going up during 2021. University of Washington addiction expert Caleb Banta-Green described the deadly consequences of the synthetic opioid fentanyl displacing heroin as “stunning,” in a news release. The head of the Northwest region of the Drug Enforcement Administration also did not mince words in laying blame on fentanyl.
Death rates have ticked up over the past year and a half for cancer, heart disease and an assortment of other conditions, which could be an indirect impact of the pandemic.
“The whole issue of the impact of delayed care from the pandemic is an incredibly important one, but also a very difficult one to quantify,” said Dr. Tao Kwan-Gett, chief science officer for the Washington Department of Health. “We’ll need to look at the data long and hard to really assess.”