How many people is coronavirus killing?
It’s one of the most important questions about the most important problem for a generation.
Governments update the official tally every day, but experts warn that that number misses a lot of deaths linked to coronavirus. Without knowing the number of overall deaths — and comparing it to deaths in previous years — it’s impossible to tell the true number.
But unlike governments around the world, Ontario releases data on deaths far too slowly for us to answer the question. We’ll be able to see overall numbers of deaths for the period we’re now in, but not until January of 2022, officials say.
Why is that important?
All over the world, statistics have shown a disturbing fact: deaths have risen by far more than official totals of coronavirus deaths can account for.
In the U.K., deaths are 40,000 above normal levels, though less than half were attributed to coronavirus. In New York City, about 16,000 deaths are officially blamed on coronavirus — but that still leaves another 4,300 deaths above levels normal at this time of year. At least 10 countries, from Belgium to Ecuador, show similar patterns.
Experts Global News has talked to point to two causes: deaths related to coronavirus but attributed to other causes; and deaths indirectly linked to it, such as people with heart attacks who are reluctant to go to hospital.
“Definitely, if we are just counting COVID-confirmed deaths, we are underestimating the true death toll of COVID on Canadian society,” says Burlington, Ont., doctor Jennifer Kwan.
“It is very important to have up-to-date, all-cause mortality data. If we are finding out a year later, or more, then that’s not really helpful for us in the current pandemic. That will only be helpful for us in planning for the next pandemic, and the long-term effects of this one.”
Ontario’s Vital Statistics Act only requires the province’s registrar-general to publish a report on vital statistics like births, marriages and deaths after the end of each year, related to the year before the one that just ended.
“Gathering and compiling the statistics for an annual report requires that vital events that occurred during the reporting year are properly registered, which must account for events that are submitted by individuals for registration up to 365 days after the event occurred,” provincial spokesperson Harry Malhi wrote in an e-mail.
“As a result, the mortality data you are requesting from death registrations is currently unavailable as the annual reports for 2019 and 2020 have not been published yet.”
That means that we can’t expect death data about the period we’re now living in until after the end of 2021, Malhi confirmed. (Ontario does publish daily totals of deaths formally attributed to coronavirus, but without numbers on deaths in general, it isn’t possible to see what may be being missed.)
Malhi did not respond to a question about whether mortality data could be released earlier than the deadline.
A spokesperson in Government and Consumer Services Minister Lisa Thompson’s office did not respond to questions about whether Ontario could start releasing data about death more promptly.
The U.K., by contrast, releases mortality data for the whole country every week; the most recent data release comes up to April 17.
Most Canadian provinces are far more sluggish about reporting death (B.C., which reports deaths monthly, is an exception), with the result that Statistics Canada’s national data on mortality only comes up to 2018.
“There are a lot of things to take into consideration,” Kwan says. “That being said, it sounds like a lot of European countries and the U.S. have been able to produce this sort of data and publish it on a weekly, if not monthly, basis. Hopefully, COVID-19 will allow us to expedite the process here.”
Doctors who submit death certificates to the province send the documents in quickly once they’re complete, Kwan says; the delay isn’t on their end.
“On the end of the person filling out the paperwork, that usually has to be done in a prompt time,” she says. “Depending on the province, it’s usually within 48 hours, or quicker if possible.”
Many things the health care system would normally do, like cancer screenings, are being delayed or cancelled because of pressure due to coronavirus, Kwan says.
“Right now, the medical system is very focused on treating acute COVID. Sometimes if things are considered non-urgent, tests are being delayed , procedures and surgeries.”
What will the consequences be? It’s hard to know, but timely data about deaths will help doctors understand, and react.
“We may see an increase in breast cancer, colon cancer or cervical cancer.”
“Having that all-cause mortality data would be important. So we see that maybe the number of strokes or heart attacks has significantly increased, so maybe it’s time for more public messaging to tell people: these are the signs and symptoms of a stroke or heart attack; do not ignore it, go to the hospital. ”
Quebec officials did not respond to a request for up-to-date mortality data from that province. Montreal’s public health department said the city does not keep mortality data at the local level.