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Next weekend marks four years since New Hampshire saw its first death from what was then called “the novel coronavirus,” and although COVID-19 isn’t taking many lives these days, the passage of time shows it has ushered us into an unhappy new normal in terms of mortality.

The data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Protection is clear. In 2018 and 2019, the two years before COVID showed up, New Hampshire averaged slightly under 12,800 deaths a year. But after 2020 we have averaged more than 14,100 deaths annually. That’s an increase of roughly 10 percent, a huge jump by demographic standards.

Everybody expected the number of deaths to rise when COVID hit but nobody thought the death count would stay so high. And we can’t blame the SARS-CoV2 virus itself.

The New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services estimates that only one or two people a week die from COVID these days, and the New Hampshire Hospital Association says that the number of people hospitalized with COVID has fallen from an early January peak of 174 to less than 30.

The deaths come from all causes: heart disease (the state’s no. 1 killer) and other internal diseases,   respiratory ailments like flu  and COVID, suicide and homicide, work accidents, car wrecks, drug overdoses, tick-born diseases, age-related ailments in one of the nation’s oldest states – anything and everything.

Similar patterns can be seen around the country and in other countries, as if the pandemic unsettled society to the point that we lost guardrails around daily life that we hardly knew existed. We drive less safely, we skip vaccines, we get angry more easily, we eat worse as prices have risen, we are more likely to be homeless, we don’t gather with friends and neighbors as often, we get less help from a strained and expensive health-care system – the possible causes are many, with no easy solutions at hand.

Ken Johnson, the UNH  professor who has become a go-to source for demographic change, points out that our aging state makes us more vulnerable. The biggest segment of New Hampshire population  is between the ages of 55 and 65, heading into the years when people become more vulnerable to all of life’s vicissitudes. Even before the pandemic our death rate had been edging higher, although nothing like it has done since then.

Beyond the tragedy of lives cut short, the state of New Hampshire, like its slow-growing neighbors, can’t really afford to lose more people.

The number of births in New Hampshire has been slowly falling for years. Johnson points out that census data shows our “natural change” in population, which counts deaths and births, has been negative since 2015 and gotten slightly worse since COVID. Most years we see 2,000 more deaths than births.

If it wasn’t for people moving into New Hampshire, mostly from other states but some from overseas, the state’s population would have fallen by roughly 20,000 people over the past decade – as if every man, woman and child in Loudon and Weare had packed their bags and departed.

Fortunately, people are moving here. The Census Bureau estimates that the state population hit 1,402,054 on July 1, an increase of 1.8% since April 1, 2020, right after our first COVID death. That’s feeble growth by the standards of the Sunbelt but it’s more than most of the Northeast. And with our housing shortage, perhaps it’s good that the growth isn’t higher.

The question that nobody can answer is how the future will be. Perhaps we’ll move away from the rage and despair that was fueled by the pandemic. Perhaps we’ll attract more young people to balance out the age-related mortality of Baby Boomers and the oldest Millennials. Perhaps we’ll look harder at social safety nets and other ways to ease the travails of modern life.

Let’s hope so, anyway.

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