On August 18, the National Safety Council (NSC) predicted that coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) may become the third leading cause of death in the United States for 2020, behind only heart disease and cancer. In 2018, the most recent year of final fatality data, the third leading cause of death was preventable deaths from drug overdoses, motor vehicle crashes, and falls.
The number of deaths from COVID-19 this year already has surpassed the number of preventable deaths in calendar year 2018. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. COVID-19 currently is widespread in most U.S. communities and considered a workplace hazard.
The number of deaths in the U.S. from confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 now exceeds 170,000. There were 167,127 deaths from preventable causes in 2018.
An indirect consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic may be increases in opioid overdoses and the rate of motor vehicle fatality, according to the NSC. The American Medical Association has reported increases in opioid-related mortality in more than 40 states during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Overdose deaths already were increasing. The NSC noted that preliminary data out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that overdose deaths set records in 2019, rising by 4.8% to a total of 70,980, with 50,042 of those deaths due to opioid overdoses.
Despite a decrease in driving during the pandemic and an 8% decrease in deaths from motor vehicle crashes, the mileage death rate per 100 million vehicle miles driven for May 2020 was 1.47 compared with 1.19 in 2019, according to the NSC.
The NSC reiterated its position that employers reopening their facilities must ensure their employees are returning safely. The NSC established a reopening framework based on recommendations of its Safe Actions for Employee Returns (SAFER) task force, a group that included the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) and American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP).
The NSC’s recommendations for employers included screening employees for symptoms at the start of work shifts, testing for COVID-19 infections, and cooperating with public health authorities performing contact tracing. The group even suggested that employers encourage their employees to use contact tracing apps like COVID-19 Watch, CoEpi, and Private Kit: Safe Paths on their mobile devices.
Employers should be especially mindful of risks to older employees and employees with chronic health conditions, who may have severe illnesses due to COVID-19 infection, the NSC said. The group also warned employers they may need to adapt to future restrictions, including cities, counties, and states that reimpose stay-at-home orders or issue other restrictions on operations if the spread of COVID-19 remains uncontrolled.
The NSC also urged states’ governors to develop consistent testing and contact tracing protocols. A letter from the NSC and a coalition that included several state safety councils called on the governors of all 50 states to make effective testing and contact tracing protocols a top focus as state stay-at-home orders expire and workplaces reopen. The NSC emphasized the importance of testing and contact tracing because 80% of individuals infected with COVID-19 are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms.