There is evidence, according to Statistics Canada, that Alberta is seeing excess deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Excess deaths, also known as excess mortality, refers to situations where there are more deaths during a particular time period than what is expected, based on historical data.
The figures, released Friday, show that while there isn’t evidence of excess deaths in most jurisdictions in the country, there is evidence of it in Alberta, along with B.C. and Quebec.
Stats Can compared data for seven weeks, starting at the end of February in 2020 to each of the previous five years.
The data shows that this year, there were 402 more deaths in Alberta over the seven-week period. During that time period, there were 40 reported deaths in the province due to COVID-19.
“What this suggests is we’ve seen an excess… [that] is greater than the number of COVID deaths over that period.
“There may be other factors at play, like changes in the age-sex structure of the population or annual fluctuations and other causes of death over that period,” said Owen Phillips, senior analyst with the Vital Statistics program at Statistics Canada.
Paul Veugelers, a professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta, said the excess mortality numbers in Alberta were to be expected.
“That gives you a glimpse of the impact of the pandemic on mortality,” he said.
“It’s not only the virus that’s going around but there’s all kinds of things that are changing in society because of the measures – the school closures, people are encouraged to work from home so there’s less traffic, people are discouraged to go for minor procedures at hospitals.”
Stats Can said the deaths can’t necessarily be attributed directly or indirectly to the pandemic and more research needs to be done.
However, infection control epidemiologist Colin Furness said there is direct and indirect mortality connected to the pandemic.
In direct mortality, people may have had COVID-19 and died without ever being tested for the virus.
In indirect mortality, changes and disruptions in the healthcare system during the pandemic may have contributed to a death.
“Do we have people who died waiting for an organ transplant or had a heart attack and were too scared to go to the hospital?” Furness said.
Zahid Butt, an infectious disease epidemiologist and professor at the School of Public Health and Health Systems and the University of Waterloo, said it’s important for provinces to figure out how many deaths were actually caused by COVID-19.
“What’s happening to the mortality because of chronic diseases? Is there any relationship between the pandemic and the circumstances that were caused by the pandemic that led to the increase in deaths related to other diseases?” he said.
Furness, who is a professor in the Faculty of Information and the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, said data on excess mortality is critical.
“If you don’t know who a disease is killing, you’re limiting your understanding of the disease.
“You’re limiting your understanding of what’s most important about a disease. If this were a minor illness, this would not be such a big deal but it does kill a lot of people” he said.
He said it is particularly important when it comes to if, or when, there is a second wave.
“Was shutting down the economy worth it? If we think about what should we do, should we maybe just let it happen, let it roll over us? I think knowing the true burden of this illness is important,” Furness said.
“If we have a really good understanding of direct and indirect deaths attributable to COVID, the next time around, we might be able to design our interventions to be a little bit better.”
Butt said excess mortality is important to monitor as provinces continue to reopen.
“If you notice you’re seeing a lot of new cases and more deaths, then you may have to revise and go back from Stage 3 to Stage 2 to prevent that,” he said.
This is the first time Statistics Canada has tracked excess deaths in relation to a pandemic.
Phillips said the figures look solely at death due to all causes and Stats Can will release more information related to cause of death next month.