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What’s Canada’s true coronavirus death toll? Here’s why it’s hard to say

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Across the world, the number of deaths has risen noticeably more than official novel coronavirus death tolls can account for.

In the U.K., for example, there are 50,000 more deaths than is normal at this time of year, though only 32,000 of those are classified as coronavirus deaths.

The reasons mostly seem to have to do with the fact that not all deaths caused by the coronavirus are accounted for that way and that some are caused indirectly: for example, people with heart attacks may die because they’re avoiding hospitals.

Is something similar true in Canada? Statistics Canada tried to answer the question in a release on Wednesday, but slow and antiquated death reporting systems in some provinces make it hard to get any meaning from the data, an expert says.

“This is a story about how bad the data is, no question,” says Colin Furness of the University of Toronto.

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READ MORE: ‘Archaic’ way Canada records deaths holding up real-time COVID-19 numbers — expert

The data, which covers eight provinces, compares deaths by the week in early 2019 and early 2020.

The results vary wildly: Alberta appears to have 374 “excess deaths” in the first three months of the year, more or less in line with what we see in other countries. But B.C. had 75 fewer and Quebec had 1,257 fewer than the same period last year.

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However, StatCan cautioned that not all deaths in the period they were looking at are included in the data.

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Death counts for late March for Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador were omitted as “too unreliable to be published,” and Ontario and New Brunswick are missing entirely.

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“When you look at it, just eyeballing it, Alberta’s deaths are up, which is odd, because Alberta didn’t have that many deaths,” Furness says. “Quebec’s deaths are down, and Quebec did have a lot of deaths.”

READ MORE: How many people is coronavirus really killing? Ontario’s data can’t tell us

Many other First World countries are much faster and more complete in reporting death. For example, on Wednesday morning, Scotland reported deaths up to April 26, complete with breakdowns by cause and region and whether the death took place in an institutional setting.

A big problem in the data is that Ontario isn’t included, Furness says. Ontario has Canada’s highest population and second-highest coronavirus death toll.

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“Ontario is missing, which is not surprising,” he says. “Ontario has got a lousy data management situation.”

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Epidemiologists have complained about Ontario’s very slow release of mortality data for years, Furness says. (Ontario officials have told Global News that death tolls for the period we’re now in won’t be released until January 2022.)

He says the problem is that Ontario still relies on manual data entry of paper forms and that the process creates long backlogs.

“I don’t know why Ontario is so bad. We have antiquated systems, no question. Really old information is definitely a part of it.

“For any kind of analysis that deals with dead people, it would be nice not to be stuck two years ago,” he says.