The company also cited a potential impact from rising unemployment, which can reduce employer-sponsored health insurance enrollment.
The company said it expects adjusted earnings to range from $17.75 to $18.25 per share on revenue of between $277 billion and $280 billion.
That earnings forecast included a hit of about $1.80 per share from COVID-19.
Analysts expect, on average, earnings of $18.39 per share on $278.46 billion in revenue in 2021, according to FactSet.
SVB Leerink analyst Stephen Tanal said in a research note that the initial forecast was “likely no worse than feared.”
Mizuho Securities USA analyst Ann Hynes said the impact of COVID-19 is greater than she expected, but she also suspects the company is acting conservatively.
“We consider the underlying growth excluding the COVID impact strong,” she said in a note.
UnitedHealth usually starts its annual forecasts conservatively, and CEO David Wichmann told analysts in October to expect that for 2021.
He said the company still has confidence in its long-term goal of 13% to 16% earnings growth, and UnitedHealth expects its underlying business to be strong.
Insurers like UnitedHealth reaped huge profits earlier this year when the pandemic forced patients to put off elective surgeries and other care that wasn’t deemed essential. But health insurers say those care levels have since nearly returned to normal.
UnitedHealth has earned $13.19 billion through the the first nine months of this year, with adjusted earnings totaling $14.36 per share.
The company also said Tuesday that its adjusted earnings for 2020 will approach $16.75 per share, which is slightly higher than the average Wall Street forecast.
Based in Minnetonka, Minnesota, UnitedHealth Group Inc. runs a health insurance business that covers about 48 million people, mostly in the United States.
Its Optum segment also runs one of the nation’s largest pharmacy benefit management operations as well as a growing number of clinics and urgent care and surgery centers.
Shares of UnitedHealth, which is a component of the Dow Jones industrial average, jumped 5% to $353.20 Tuesday.
Follow Tom Murphy on Twitter: @thpmurphy