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Older Americans Dying at High Rates from COVID-19

If you are an older American or love someone who is, our primary care doctors in Delray Beach saw a recent statistic that should give you pause: Nearly nine out of ten deaths from COVID-19 are now in people 65 or older.

While many people believe—and are behaving as though—the pandemic is over, the 300-plus daily deaths still being reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) prove it is not.

And the most recent figures show that seniors are paying the highest price for that common misconception. According to an analysis by The Washington Post, in October people 85 and older represented 41.4 percent of deaths from COVID-19, those 75 to 84 were 30 percent of deaths, and those 65 to 74 made up 17.5 percent of deaths.

Together, these age groups accounted for nearly 90 percent of deaths from the virus despite being only 16 percent of the population, The Post reported.

Why the Disparity?

There are a number of reasons for this unfortunate death toll.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), deaths due to COVID-19 generally declined after vaccines were introduced in late December 2021, but spiked with the advent of the more transmissible delta and omicron variants, waning immunity from the original vaccines, fewer people receiving boosters, and the overall loosening of pandemic mitigation measures.

And seniors tend to be more vulnerable to COVID-19, as well as other diseases because their immune system becomes less robust with age. They’re also more likely to have underlying conditions such as heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, or kidney disease, which can weaken the body’s ability to fight off infectious viruses.

Because COVID-19 stresses every area of the body, from the heart and lungs to the kidneys and intestines, older individuals are more likely to suffer its worst effects.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Another reason people are still dying in such high numbers is that everyone—understandably—wants the pandemic to be over so badly that they’ve convinced themselves that COVID-19 no longer exists. They’re not getting boosters, they’ve resumed their pre-pandemic lives, and they’ve dropped masking almost entirely.

Of course, the media has contributed to this perception by reducing the amount of coverage it gives to the disease, but this simply reinforces the notion that COVID-19 is “over.”

The Los Angeles Times recently reported on the case of a 59-year-old woman who had ovarian cancer but died from COVID-19.

Her son, Erick Morales, told the paper that people tend to assume that it was cancer that killed her. When he told a friend that she didn’t die from cancer but from COVID-19, the friend was surprised.

“Really? COVID? How did that happen?” the friend asked Morales. “People aren’t dying of COVID anymore.”

Acceptable Losses?

The most unsettling aspect of the pandemic is the tendency people have nowadays to shrug their shoulders when they hear about older Americans dying of COVID-19, “raising hard questions about the trade-offs Americans are making in pursuit of normalcy—and at whose expense,” The Post noted.

S. Matthew Liao, a professor of bioethics, philosophy, and public health at New York University, told the paper he’s concerned that government leaders have chosen not to emphasize fairly benign health measures such as requiring masks at least in healthcare settings and nursing homes and conducting a national campaign to publicize the benefits of boosters.

“There’s a bit of ageism, so to speak, attached to [the lack of such initiatives],” he said. “People, even if they are older, they still have as much claim to live as me.”

In the early days of the pandemic, you may recall that one politician even suggested that those over 70 should be willing to sacrifice their lives so the country could end shutdowns and get the economy moving again. That attitude appears to have lingered.

Tara Swanigan, who lost her 75-year-old father to the disease in August 2020, told the paper she was shocked by the callousness of some people’s reactions to his death.

“Well, your dad was super old,” one person told her on social media.

“For seniors and the immunocompromised, it’s almost like we’re saying, ‘You don’t matter. We’d rather just not be inconvenienced,’ ” she said.

Waving it Away

There also may be an element of magical thinking involved in people’s reactions to COVID-19 deaths. By essentially dismissing these deaths, the average person can feel less vulnerable, especially if they aren’t taking precautions.

Kristin Urquiza, cofounder of Marked by COVID, a nonprofit that pushes for recognition of pandemic deaths, agrees.

She told the Times that, when someone loses a loved one from COVID-19, “often the first thing asked of you is either, ‘Were they vaccinated?’ or ‘Did they have a preexisting condition?’

“I think people are asking that because they want to reaffirm their own sense of safety,” she suggested. “Oh, Kristin’s dad died because he had x, y, or z—I don’t.”

This attitude appears to be pervasive, so without much support from society, it’s up to individuals to protect themselves as much as possible.

That means being up to date on your boosters because immunity from the shots or infection wanes after a few months.

It also means being proactive in making sure you wear masks in public places and insisting others do so when they’re around you indoors.

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