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CHAMPAIGN — More than 250,000 U.S. deaths have been attributed to COVID-19, and new research at the University of Illinois suggests the pandemic may have been either directly or indirectly responsible for even more deaths than the numbers have indicated.

Dr. Janet Jokela, acting regional dean of the UI College of Medicine at Urbana, and Sheldon Jacobson, a professor in computer science and at the Carle Illinois College of Medicine, studied death rates during the pandemic’s early months, from March through May, and found a significant increase in deaths over previous years. And not all of the increase has been linked to COVID-19.

“What we found was during this time frame early in the pandemic, there were excess non-COVID deaths that were unexplained,” Jokela said.

One possible explanation is that there may have been additional undiagnosed COVID-19 deaths, given that testing wasn’t widely available during the pandemic’s early months, she said.

There may also have been a pandemic-related domino effect from people delaying needed medical care and screenings or failing to get to emergency rooms quickly enough, she said.

She and Jacobson found a significant increase in excess deaths among men ages 15-59 and women ages 25-44, but a significant decrease in deaths for girls ages 5-14.

The opioid epidemic may have been a factor in some excess adult deaths, while the decrease in deaths for young girls and adolescents may possibly be due to the fact that the majority of deaths in that group result from accidents, and pandemic lockdowns kept those younger girls at home, Jokela said.

Jacobson said a small increase in COVID-19 deaths for younger girls was more than offset by declines in deaths from other purposes.

Jacobson said he and Jokela have data on deaths for June through August, and are continuing their research.

If the trends seen continue, Jacobson said, the U.S. may be on track for 300,000 to 350,000 excess deaths for the 12 months ending in February 2021.

“The key takeaway from this analysis is that excess deaths across multiple age and gender cohorts occurred beyond what has been attributed to COVID-19,” the authors wrote. “These excess deaths indicate that people across many age and gender cohorts have died unexpectedly.”

The reasons for that may become more apparent in upcoming months, they said.

Jokela also said the UI research is consistent with recently released research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggesting more people may have died from undiagnosed COVID-19 or causes linked to the pandemic.

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