Health Highlights: March 4, 2021

Emptier Roads, But Sharp Rise in U.S. Traffic Deaths in 2020

Even though Americans drove less last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a sharp increase in road deaths, a new study shows.

In 2020, there were 42,060 deaths in vehicle crashes -- which was 8% higher than in 2019 and the first increase in four years -- and 4.8 million people were injured in crashes, the Associated Press reported.

The study from the National Safety Council also said there was a 24% spike in the death rate per 100 million miles driven, the largest annual percentage increase since the nonprofit organization began collecting data in 1923.

The number of road deaths last year was the most since 2007, when the death toll was 43,945, the AP reported.

At the same time, federal statistics show that Americans drove 13% fewer miles last year, or about 2.8 trillion miles, according to Ken Kolosh, the safety council's manager of statistics.

But the "pandemic appears to be taking our eyes off the ball when it comes to traffic safety," Kolosh said.

He said early data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reveal speed to be the main problem, and tests of patients involved in traffic crashes show increased use of alcohol, marijuana and opioids, the AP reported.

Authorities say that as traffic volumes are nearly back to pre-pandemic levels, dangerous driving behavior is continuing.

"It's kind of terrifying what we're seeing on our roads," Michael Hanson, director of the Minnesota Public Safety Department's Office of Traffic Safety, told the AP. "We're seeing a huge increase in the amount of risk-taking behavior."

California Targets Vulnerable Neighborhoods for COVID-19 Vaccination

About 40% of California's COVID-19 vaccine doses will be set aside for the most vulnerable neighborhoods in the state, officials said Wednesday.

Many of the neighborhoods are in Los Angeles County and the Central Valley and are considered highly vulnerable based on factors such as income, education, housing and transportation, the Associated Press reported.

Details of the plan for the 400 ZIP codes -- which include about 8 million people eligible for vaccination -- were shared by two officials in the governor's administration on condition of anonymity.

Officials said the 400 ZIP codes have already received about 1.6 million doses, and will reach 2 million in the next week or two, the AP reported.

While race and ethnicity are not explicit factors in designating vaccinations, the 400 ZIP codes overlap heavily with neighborhoods with higher populations of Blacks, Latinos and Asian and Pacific Islanders, officials said.

Community health clinics focused on serving low-income and vulnerable Californians have said they haven't been getting enough doses, the wire service reported.

The changes mark a fresh round of twists in California's vaccination and reopening plans. People age 65 and over, farmworkers, educators and emergency service workers are now also eligible for shots.

Hospitalizations and deaths have dropped in California in recent weeks, with the state's average 2.2% test positivity rate over seven days is a record low, the AP said.

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