Ching Vang prepares for the funeral of his father, Wang Ye Vang, who died after contracting COVID-19 in November 2020. Credit: Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

As the nation reached the cusp of 500,000 COVID-19 deaths, the federal government tied the deadly pandemic to another grim statistic: Average life expectancy plummeted faster in 2020 than it has in nearly 80 years. 

Local researchers expect a similar life-expectancy drop will also hold true for Minnesota once more local data become available. In the state, more than 6,000 people have died of COVID-19 since last March. 

Last week, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released updated information on the nationwide life expectancy. For the first half of 2020, the CDC found, average life expectancy dropped from 78.8 years to 77.8 years—a decline of a full year. It’s the sharpest drop in U.S. life expectancy since World War II, according to the Associated Press

“It’s just such a huge death event in our nation’s history,” said Craig Helmstetter, managing partner for APM Research Lab, a division of American Public Media that conducts research on public policy topics. “It’s almost unprecedented.”

For people of color, the mortality trends appear even more startling.

The nationwide drop in life expectancy for the country’s Black population declined 2.7 years, from 74.7 to 72. The drop for Latinos, who live the longest on average, dropped from 81.8 years to 79.9 years, or nearly two years. The CDC did not release data on Asian or Indigenous populations. 

Before the pandemic, life expectancy had gradually climbed for decades, usually by a fraction of a point each year. By the 2010s, the number started to level off, even declining slightly. But the drop of one year between 2019 and 2020 is far more dramatic than what’s been seen recently, setting the life expectancy number back 15 years. 

“There’s so many millions of people in the country that it takes a humongous event to change that trajectory,” Helmstetter said, “and this is one of those humongous events.” 

In 2019, Minnesotans’ overall life expectancy ranked higher than the U.S. average at 80.9 years, according to the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation. That same data suggest life expectancy for Minnesota’s white population sat at 81 years, while Asians and Latinos on average lived longer: 86.8 years and 83.4 years. The life expectancy for the state’s Black population sat at 79.3 years, and Minnesota’s Indigenous population had the lowest life expectancy, at 69.9 years.

Although no specific data are available to show how Minnesota’s life expectancy has changed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, state health and data experts predict declines.

The one-year drop in life expectancy between 2019 and 2020 erases several years of gains. Credit: USAFacts.org

“We know that Minnesota has experienced excess deaths due to COVD-19, so I would expect to see a drop in life expectancy as well, once the measure is calculated,” said Susan Brower, the state’s demographer. (Brower’s nonpartisan office, the Minnesota State Demographic Center, analyzes data like age, race, and gender to make projections in areas like population and business.)

Brower added that her office is waiting for the state to report updated death totals before calculating Minnesota’s life expectancy rate for 2020.

Mortality rate climbs in Minnesota 

Helmstetter said it doesn’t take “a big leap” to come to the same conclusion about longevity in Minnesota. His organization has produced its own analysis suggesting COVID-19 is killing people of color in Minnesota at disproportionate rates. 

Raw data alone shows the COVID-19 mortality rate is actually higher for Minnesota’s white population in the state—at an average of 116 deaths per 100,000 people, according to APM Research Labs. For Minnesota’s Asian, Black, and Latino populations, the COVID-19 mortality rate is lower, at 83.6, 83, and 59.2 deaths per 100,000 people, respectively. 

But Helmstetter explained this statistic is misleading, stemming from the fact that the state’s white population contains many more elderly people. “A big chunk of the white population is in that higher-risk category of age 65-plus, but it’s 5 or 10 percent of smaller racial and ethnic groups,” Helmstetter said. 

Indeed, people aged 65 and older make up just 6 percent of Minnesota’s population of color compared to 16 percent of the state’s white population, according to Minnesota Compass.

When adjusting for age, or using a formula to place greater weight on younger white populations and greater weight on older populations of color, APM Research Lab found a higher COVID-19 death rate in people of color. For the white population, it found 99 deaths per 100,000 people. For Asian, Black, and Latino populations, it found 187.5, 203.5, and 221.4 deaths per 100,000 people, respectively.

The COVID-19 mortality rate augured worse for one group in both cases: the state’s Indigenous population. When not adjusted for age, Minnesota’s Indigenous population died of COVID-19 at 166 deaths per 100,000 people. When adjusted for age, that figure grew to 343.6 deaths.

The takeaway? COVID-19 is killing younger people of color at higher rates. 

If there’s any silver lining to the grim numbers, it’s that they don’t necessarily predict future mortality, Brower said. Instead, she reads current life expectancy numbers as a measure of how healthy the country is right now. That could change again. 

“As we know from this pandemic, we’ve taken a big blow to our health,” Brower said.

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...