Last week, for the first time, the Social Security Administration (SSA) released information on the number of beneficiaries who died in 2020, the year the COVID-19 pandemic began. There were nearly 400,000 more beneficiary deaths in 2020 than the agency tabulated for 2019, representing a 17 percent year-over-year increase.
Double-digit percentage increases, year-over-year, were found for all beneficiary groups including retirees, spouses, widows, and the disabled.
SSA’s statistics almost certainly reflect the concentration of COVID-19 deaths among the populations the agency serves. The CDC's death data, which includes all individuals and not just Social Security beneficiaries, indicates about 500,000 more deaths occurred in the United States in 2020 than in 2019. The CDC estimates that approximately 375,000 deaths in 2020 were due to COVID-19.
SSA's death data offer federal researchers additional ways to study the effects of COVID-19 because it can be linked to all elements in SSA's databases including benefit amounts, past earnings, race/ethnicity, and diagnosis codes for disabled beneficiaries. Federal researchers, who have access to the raw data, could potentially unlock death patterns in the data that would help policymakers understand the probable effects of COVID-19 on groups with different disabling conditions and socioeconomic status.
Federal researchers can examine even very narrow subpopulations with the extensive raw data available. To illustrate, the data released by SSA last week show a relatively small beneficiary group (Disabled Adult Children) had the highest percentage increase (26 percent) in the number of deaths from 2019 to 2020. It may be that these beneficiaries, who are adults that have been disabled since childhood, have specific disabling conditions or circumstances, such as residing in long-term care facilities, that make them especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
Beyond research, and perhaps of more importance, the new data highlight the need for the Biden administration to communicate with Social Security beneficiaries regarding developments in vaccine policy. For example, the CDC recently developed new recommendations about vaccines for immunocompromised individuals. Many of these individuals will, no doubt, be on SSA's disability rolls, and some effort to communicate with these beneficiaries about the new guidelines would be in the public's interest.
The bigger issue, however, concerns the major announcement from the White House last week regarding plans to provide booster shots, starting in the fall, to certain fully vaccinated groups including seniors. In announcing the plans, which are still contingent on FDA and CDC approval, White House officials have repeatedly used language about "staying ahead" of the disease instead of "chasing it."
Consistent with the focus on forward thinking, the administration needs to begin — right now — formulating a coherent, large-scale, and well-organized outreach campaign regarding information about booster vaccinations. The information campaign should involve SSA because its beneficiaries will be the focus of possible booster shots in the fall and winter and because SSA, unlike the CDC, FDA, or even CMS, has extensive and direct contact with the American public.
SSA has the capability of reaching all 70 million of its beneficiaries with information by U.S. mail and, when its field offices re-open, millions of Americans will come into contact with the agency every month.
SSA’s participation in a new information campaign would need to be handled deftly and avoid any political overtones. The agency's role should be that of a “connector.” For example, SSA could send letters with CDC fact sheets by U.S. mail. Since SSA is a trusted agency, that approach may make sense. However, it is not the only approach, as the CDC, for example, could use address information from SSA to send its own letters and fact sheets.
Unfortunately, there is too strong a tendency in federal communication efforts to focus on social media. This occurs because it is easy for an agency to post material on a federal website, a Facebook page, or on Twitter and tell the administration they did “outreach.” Almost all federal agencies have used web-based outreach in support of the administration's public education "We Can Do This" campaign.
However, given the damage that the pandemic is doing to the country and the value of vaccines, the expense of direct and extensive communications (through the U.S. mail and other means) is justified. It is also necessary because of the subject matter. There needs to be enough information in the communications to answer questions the public has about vaccines.
A new outreach campaign that involves SSA would reinforce any information about booster shots from pharmacies, states, counties, businesses, and non-profits. The government should follow a basic rule from the private sector on advertising: People need to "hear" the message more than once before they will act.
An outreach campaign could focus on the unvaccinated as well as the issue of booster shots. The elderly, by now, have high rates of vaccination, but in some states the rates are still too low. Additionally, policymakers need additional focus on the relatively low vaccination rates among disabled persons.
Finally, about 2.3 million children between the ages of 12 and 17 are on the Social Security or Supplemental Security Income rolls and can be informed of new guidelines on vaccinations for those in this age group.
The amount of information — and misinformation — about COVID-19 has made it difficult for the public to effectively synthesize and process new developments. In addition, this fall will be a "noisy" season for the government and the press, with intense debates and discussion around foreign policy, infrastructure legislation, raising the debt limit, and funding the government. Unless the federal government begins planning now for a widespread, direct, and clear information campaign on vaccines and boosters to important groups, such as Social Security beneficiaries, it will be difficult to cut through the noise and get people to act. And the consequences of that could be tragic.
David A. Weaver, Ph.D., is an economist and retired federal employee who has authored a number of studies on the Social Security program. The views in this article do not reflect the views of any federal agency.