Cancer rates fell, death rates spiked: New report breaks down surprising ways COVID affected health

Coronavirus

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — A new report finds COVID-19 has affected our health in some surprising ways.

The latest America’s Health Rankings, the first edition of the annual publication to include the impact of the pandemic, showed a 17 percent increase in the U.S. death rate.

“The important thing as we look at this report is, it’s the first glimpse of the impact of COVID,” said Dr. Michelle Bucknor, the Chapel Hill-based chief medical officer for UnitedHealthCare’s Community Health Plan of North Carolina.

She also called the increase in the death rate “not surprising, but sad.”

Another effect of the pandemic: A 7 percent decrease in the prevalence of cancer — likely because people put off screenings during the pandemic, Bucknor said.

“So there’s a big concern that … people postponed preventive care because of concerns about going to the doctor,” she said. “And I think if there’s anything everyone needs to think about, did I delay a mammogram? Did I delay preventive services? Because there could be undetected cancer.”

North Carolina continued its incremental climb in the rankings, moving up two spots to No. 27 nationally. The state was at No. 32 two years ago before inching up to 29th in 2020.

The report, produced by a UnitedHealthcare-backed research foundation, looks at 81 measures from 30 data sources in a comprehensive picture of health.

It gives our state credit for its low racial disparity in high school graduation rates and its high childhood immunization rate.

But it knocks North Carolina for having a high percentage of households with food insecurity, low per capita public health funding, and a high prevalence of high-risk HIV behaviors.

“I think our challenges, not surprisingly, are persisting,” Bucknor said.

North Carolina’s spending on public health did increase — just not as much as it did in other states.

The report finds public health spending went up in every state, rising nationally by 33 percent from last year to $116 per person, and COVID-19 was a big reason why.

“The pandemic has shown us how important it is to have a strong public health infrastructure to continue to address the challenges we face,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, the American Public Health Association’s executive director. “It is my hope that we use this data to build a public health system that can work to protect all Americans and address health inequities.”

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