A University of Toronto infectious disease researcher is standing by her peer-reviewed Royal Society of Canada study, which found Canada is undercounting COVID-19 deaths, a day after Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe called part of it “misinformation.”
“It was just kind of silly and uninformed,” Dr. Tara Moriarty said in an interview.
The report found that Canada is missing “at least two-thirds of the deaths caused by COVID-19 in communities outside of the long-term care sector,” presenting a dramatically different understanding of how the disease affected the country.
It compared the reported at-home and in-hospital deaths, combined with testing rates and positivity, from different provinces and territories, to those in Quebec, which tests all deceased people for COVID. It also compared national statistics to similar countries.
Saskatchewan, at the end of the time of data collection, was likely undercounting deaths by a factor of seven, Moriarty said.
Moe took issue with the findings when asked about excess deaths in a press conference on Monday (when speaking about how the province was reporting deaths and why it failed to report nine recent deaths).
“In Saskatchewan, we have for a number of years now, we experienced about 10,000 fatalities… from all reasons across the province,” Moe said. “And for someone to indicate that the majority of those are due to COVID is just simply nothing short of some of the most egregious misinformation that I’ve seen throughout this pandemic.”
A statement from Moe’s office on Tuesday reinforced his position, stating “(t)he suggestion that there have been over 6,000 unreported COVID-19 deaths is actually quite ridiculous and irresponsible misinformation.”
“The Premier and government have full confidence that the data compiled and released by Saskatchewan health care officials is accurate.”
Saskatchewan reported 10,000 deaths in 2020, according to Statistics Canada. It reported between roughly 9,400 and 9,560 deaths from 2015 to 2019.
Moriarty said the figure of unreported COVID-19 deaths is closer to 5,000, based on the difference between the average and the 2020 figure.
Her calculations also take into account test positivity and low test rates to project trends forward, since Saskatchewan is slow at reporting in-depth death information to Statistics Canada, she said.
“We really only have good data (for Saskatchewan) to the end of the first wave, and we have partial data to the end of the second wave,” she explained.
The disease has changed since the end of the data collection period. She now says the death count is likely around four or five times the official tally, though she added that is still likely a conservative estimate. She said she didn’t want to give an exact figure.
Cheryl Camillo, a professor at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy and a deputy leader in CoVaRR Net, a global network tracking COVID-19, said Moe’s comments amounted to denying the severe impact the disease has had on the province.
“It does seem to be part of a pattern of playing down the negative impacts of this ongoing pandemic and trying to move attention away from the pandemic to other issues,” Camillo said in a phone interview.
She said it was part of a cultural movement in the province by people “who feel they have no responsibility to others” but for whom the government and other citizens are still responsible.
Eric Merkley, a political scientist at the University of Toronto who studies political attitudes during the pandemic, also said Moe’s statement was an attempt to deflect.
“Any report that casts political leaders in a negative light,” he said, “…it doesn’t surprise me that it’s open to attack from from said leaders because it’s inconvenient for their popularity.”
He said information about the virus has changed as scientists have learned more and as the virus has mutated.
“But to label any sort of good faith scientific effort as misinformation is highly, highly inflammatory and is deeply, deeply problematic” with regards to building the trust governments and scientists need to have with the public to enact measures to stop COVID-19 from spreading, he said.
Moe has repeatedly stated he will not impose new guidelines because the financial and emotional costs of lockdowns are too high. He has also said experiences in other provinces show lockdowns don’t reduce the spread of COVID-19, though he has not supplied data proving that is the case — despite calls to do so.
Moriarty said it’s important to have an accurate understanding of how widespread and deadly COVID-19 truly is.
“If you’re not accurate or fully reporting your COVID deaths, you’re left with an enormous number of deaths that you have no idea why they happened — far more deaths than in previous years,” she told Global News.
“And you don’t know why. And that is a nightmare.”
She said it may take years to determine how many people passed away.
In a statement posted to Twitter, she offered to meet with Scott Moe to explain how she arrived at the numbers.
She said she hadn’t received a response.
Global News asked the government about Moe’s comments and a meeting but the response did not say whether the premier would speak with Moriarty.
Moriarty’s modelling shows the province will likely suffer another 700 COVID-19 deaths, and that the country will likely suffer another 10,000 deaths of unvaccinated people, before the pandemic ends.
She is urging everyone to get vaccinated and to take precautions. She estimated third doses of COVID-19 vaccines have saved around 15,000 lives.