Canada is lagging behind other countries in releasing mortality data for 2020, which health experts say puts the country at a disadvantage in detecting trends that could improve the response to COVID-19.
While federal and provincial governments are tracking confirmed COVID-19 deaths on a daily basis, they haven’t released the overall number of deaths in Canada this year, which epidemiologists and infectious disease experts say is needed to help determine how many unconfirmed coronavirus deaths have occurred and whether there are large numbers of deaths indirectly related to the disease.
“[Deaths are a] really reliable way of tracking the epidemic,” said Prabhat Jha, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Health who has earned international renown for his research on premature mortality causes around the world.
Death data from other countries, notably the United States and Britain, suggest the total number of COVID-19-related fatalities far exceeds what the official counts show. Overall mortality in many U.S. cities, for instance, is far higher compared with last year, which experts say points to the fact not all COVID-19 fatalities are being tracked. There are also likely additional deaths owing to causes indirectly related to the coronavirus, experts say.
Unlike COVID-19 testing, which varies by region and is still fairly limited in Canada, deaths provide a much more accurate snapshot, Dr. Jha said. He said he has asked Statistics Canada to release some form of mortality data to help experts see whether there are important changes between this year and last that are going unrecognized.
In Canada, vital statistics offices in each province and territory are responsible for recording deaths and reporting them to Statistics Canada.
In an e-mail, a Statistics Canada spokesperson said the agency is preparing to release some information in mid-May on death counts for regions that have data available, as well as an analysis of excess deaths.
It’s unclear which regions will be included in the analysis or if causes of death will be broken down.
Matthew Oughton, an infectious-diseases physician at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital, said tracking deaths could help experts understand whether COVID-19 fatalities are being undercounted, or if pockets of people are dying because they’re having trouble accessing health care.
“If you have double the number of deaths in the same population year-over-year this year compared to last year, that’s telling you something is driving that,” Dr. Oughton said.
According to anecdotal reports from physicians, many people are avoiding going to the emergency room, which could lead to an increase in deaths from common causes such as heart attacks or stroke. In other cases, people may be dying because of delayed treatments or procedures. For instance, most hospitals in Canada have postponed non-emergency surgeries, which experts say could lead to a higher number of deaths.
In addition to possible increases in deaths owing to some causes, this year’s mortality data will also likely show decreases in other deaths, such as motor-vehicle accidents, said Greta Bauer, an epidemiology professor at the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Western Ontario.
And while there are worries that job losses and economic uncertainty will lead to a higher number of suicides this year, Dr. Bauer said that won’t become clear until researchers can analyze the numbers and compare them to previous time frames. She said it is possible the suicide rate won’t see a spike because job losses are so widespread.
“Losing a job because of COVID is socially a very different thing,” she said. “Even things we thought we knew about other causes of mortality may not be applicable in the COVID era.”
But even when statistics are available, Dr. Bauer said they will be missing some key information. When deaths occur, demographic data, such as an individual’s ethnicity and sex, is usually not recorded, making it difficult to understand how the pandemic is affecting different groups, she said.
“Some of the data that we would ideally need to understand COVID-related deaths are data that are not collected right now,” Dr. Bauer said.
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