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Survey finds 4 in 10 American adults know someone who died of COVID-19

In April 2020, Rabbi Shmuel Plafker looked at a list of burials for the day, all listing the cause of death as COVID-19, as he kept pace with a surge of deaths reaching Hebrew Free Burial Association's cemetery in the Staten Island borough of New York.David Goldman/AP/file

With the nation poised to reach the tragic milestone this month of 1 million official deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic, 40 percent of American adults say they know 1 or more people who have died of the disease, according to a survey released last week.

That included 20 percent who knew 1 person who had died from the virus, 13 percent who knew 2, and 7 percent who said they knew 3 or more, according to the survey conducted by the COVID-19 Consortium for Understanding the Public’s Policy Preferences Across States, which includes Northeastern, Harvard, Rutgers, and Northwestern universities.


Dr. Roy H. Perlis, a professor of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital who was the lead author of a report on the consortium survey, said that it “helps to put numbers to how massive the loss has been. When we talk about the total number of deaths approaching a particular milestone, that we’re coming up on a million people, it’s kind of hard to put that into context and to remember it’s people’s family members, co-workers, and friends.”

“You start to realize those million deaths impact an awful lot of people,” he said.

The survey involved 18,103 adults from the 50 states and the District of Columbia in March 2022, researchers said. Results were released last week. It was one of a series of surveys the consortium has been conducting since April 2020, probing attitudes and behaviors regarding COVID-19 in the United States.

The survey also asked respondents a series of standard questions that can be used to assess whether someone is depressed. The survey found that 27 percent of adults reported moderate or greater symptoms of depression, a level at which a primary care doctor would typically refer someone for more evaluation and treatment. The most recent rate was “generally similar” to rates previously seen in the pandemic, which have been far above the 8 percent measured prior to the pandemic, the researchers said.


“I had hoped that by now these numbers would be coming down,” Perlis said. “It is disappointing to see that these numbers have stayed really at numbers that are unprecedented, at least in recent times.”

“It’s wonderful that people feel ready to move on from the pandemic,” Perlis said. “On the other hand, there’s a lot we’re going to have to contend with going forward. … Part of the goal is to call attention to the fact that people are still struggling and the fallout is more substantial” than many people realize from pandemic-related depression, anxiety, bereavement, and loss.

The survey paints a “grim picture,” Perlis said. “Someone has to say, ‘Hang on, there’s still a lot of work to do.’ ”

Other research, including studies from Boston University and Boston College, has also found a high level of depression in the populace during the harrowing pandemic that upended life around the world.

Perlis said the survey found two glints of hope: a decline in rates of depression among adults in households with children, and a gradual, modest decline in the number of people having suicidal thoughts.

The consortium’s survey found that 15 percent of adults said they had lost a family member, though Perlis acknowledged that respondents could be including distant relatives.

A different group of researchers has tried to determine how many Americans have lost close relatives in the pandemic.


Looking at kinship networks using a type of demographic modeling called “microsimulation,” the demographic researchers estimated that for every COVID-19 death, there are nine bereaved close relatives: people who have lost either a grandparent, parent, sibling, spouse, or child.

“As we’re approaching about a million deaths, we estimate that about nine million people have lost a close relative to COVID-19,” said one of the researchers, Emily Smith-Greenaway, associate professor of sociology and spatial sciences at the University of Southern California.

The deaths have “cast a widening shadow” over the population, she said.

That level of bereavement is “itself a population health concern,” she said, because bereaved people are at higher risk of mental and physical health issues.

She emphasized the crisis will have long-lasting effects. “Even as the mortality ceases, the crisis abates, there will be this lingering imprint on our population,” she said.

Martin Finucane can be reached at