Early ‘excess death’ data for Canada suggests decrease in deaths in early days of pandemic

Data released Wednesday by Statistics Canada suggest that fewer Canadians died in the first three months of 2020 than in the same period in previous years, despite the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

In a first attempt to clarify the actual number of deaths from COVID-19, the agency published data of eight provinces and a territory in "excess of deaths" – an increase over what would be expected for the same period of time based on historical data.


But the figures available to date – 87,186 deaths in the three-month period, down from 1,145 from last year – suggest that there have been fewer deaths in Canada overall, with excess deaths detected only in Alberta and British Columbia. Experts say this is due to the patchwork of reporting methods in all jurisdictions, but it also shows that blocking measures may have reduced the number of deaths not related to COVID.

In countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, similar analyzes have revealed hundreds, sometimes thousands of excess deaths. Experts say the excess of deaths is a more reliable measure, because it would capture not only deaths directly linked to COVID-19, but also those that could be indirectly linked, such as a heart attack or stroke that was not treated in time due to pressure over the body. health system.

Canada's first confirmed death was on March 8 in British Columbia. By the end of March, there were 126 confirmed deaths.


(CBC news graphics)

Most of the confirmed deaths have occurred since then, most of them in Quebec and Ontario.


"The data is provisional; deaths are missing from there," said Owen Phillips, senior analyst with the vital statistics program at Statistics Canada.

"As more data becomes available, and we can attach a cause of death and look at mortality rates at different ages and genders, we will be able to better understand how Canadians have been affected."

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One researcher explains why the numbers so far do not tell the full story.


"People generally die about four weeks after the initial infection, so to die by March 28th, you would need to be infected in early March and we only had a few cases at the time," said Jay Kaufman, professor in the department of Epidemiology , Biostatistics and Occupational Health at McGill University in Montreal. "This means that the impact on mortality is not yet detectable."


(CBC news graphics)

Confused figures in Quebec

Quebec has the highest reported number of COVID-19 deaths in Canada: As of Wednesday, there were 3,220 deaths recorded in that province out of 5,389 in the country, according to the CBC count based on provincial data, regional health information and reports from the CBC.

(CBC News)

The death count reported by Statistics Canada raises more questions than it answers, according to one expert.

Prabhat Jha, professor of epidemiology at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, compared the number of deaths in Quebec reported by StatsCan to those obtained by the Quebec Ministry of Labor, Employment and Social Solidarity by the National Mail.

Québec government data shows a 214 increase in deaths in March, not a 563 decrease as in StatsCan data. Jha sees this as a flaw in the way data is shared between the provinces and the federal government.

"Both cannot be right," said Jha. "This needs to be resolved. This is a call for better coordination between provinces and federals during a pandemic."

There are no figures for Ontario

Another reason the preliminary figures for StatsCan do not show a complete picture is because they do not include Ontario, the second most affected province in Canada or New Brunswick. Nunavut and Yukon data are also missing.

According to the CBC count, 71 deaths related to COVID-19 were recorded in Ontario during the month of March.

Phillips of StatsCan says that in recent years it has taken Ontario more than 60 days to share its monthly death reports with the agency.

He says collecting data on reported deaths in all provinces and territories is a "complex and decentralized process" that comes with several challenges – even in a non-pandemic year.

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"We have vital statistical offices. They have different laws, different mandates, different capacity issues and data collection methods. So we face 13 different data collection processes," said Phillips.

For Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, this reveals flaws in the way data is shared in a timely manner between provinces and the federal government.

"I think, in a way, this is a story about bad data," Furness wrote to Radio-Canada. "But we must wait until the April data is available and, hopefully, Ontario will participate."

Lower numbers of deaths may still be good news

The StatsCan data may still offer some ideas, according to Greta Bauer, professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Western University in London, Ontario. On the one hand, this may show that some deaths not related to COVID were prevented in the early days of the pandemic.

Physical detachment and confinement measures adopted by some provinces in mid-March could have reduced the number of people who die of seasonal flu and traffic accidents because Canadians were at home.

It is also possible that there are fewer suicides, she said.

"We are changing the risk of death by keeping people socially apart," said Bauer. "What we know about suicide risk may not be valid in a pandemic."

For example, unemployment is a high risk of suicide, but in the context of COVID-19 it can be viewed differently. "People are getting more financial support and maybe there is less guilt," she said.

However, without knowing the causes of the deaths, these remain purely conjectures.

Statistics Canada promises "a clearer picture will emerge" soon, as more data becomes available. The agency will release a similar analysis of "excess deaths" next month, which will capture all deaths reported by provinces and territories in April.

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