Covid-19

Are there hidden Covid-19 deaths in NZ’s statistics?

Around the world, a spike in deaths in excess of those officially attributed to Covid-19 have resulted in suggestions the real Covid-19 death toll could be 60 percent higher than what’s been reported. Does New Zealand have the same spike?

Are undetected Covid-19 deaths hidden in New Zealand’s death statistics?

In the Financial Times, The Economist and the New York Times, chart after chart of deaths in different countries show a striking similarity. The 2020 line hugs the historical average death rate, until around April when it soars upward, becoming the side of a towering mountain. 

In Italy, the increase in the number of deaths above the historical average is 90 percent, in Belgium 60 percent, in France 34 percent, in Sweden 18 percent.    

The Financial Times found in all the countries it analysed, except for Denmark, the number of deaths exceeded those attributed to Covid-19.

In total, of 122,000 deaths recorded above the historical average, only 77,000 could be attributed to Covid-19. The fear is the disease is a far deadlier disease than the official statistics imply, either directly, or because people with other conditions were unable to get treatment because hospitals were overwhelmed. 

New Zealand’s chart isn’t following the pattern seen overseas. Ours doesn’t look like a mountain in a valley. It looks more like waves in a child’s drawing of the sea.

The only currently available data comes from the Department of Internal Affairs death registrations. These are only logged on working days and there can be a lag between a person dying and their death being registered. 

Overall, there have been 129 more deaths this year between January 1 and April 29. Nineteen of those are attributed to Covid-19. As in previous years, weekly fluctuations are seeing the 2020 line both dropping and rising above the historical average calculated on weekly deaths each year from 2015 to 2019.

Statistics NZ senior demographer Kim Dunstan said part of the ups and downs in the data was because it’s based on registrations and not the day of death. 

“It’s a volatile series because you've had quite a few public holidays in the first few months of this year. Just one day extra less than a week causes those registrations to bounce around a fair bit.”

After smoothing the fluctuations out by averaging them against the week either side, he said numbers have trended down a little.

“There’s nothing there to suggest there has been more deaths in recent months than we would have normally expected.”

Since 2017, there has been a slight yearly increase in the number of deaths each year. Looking at the year-to-date totals shows the number of deaths this year has increased by 1 percent since last year.

“Clearly we don’t have anything like some of those spectacular roller coaster peaks [seen overseas]. Thankfully, I might add.”

What do we know?

At present we only know numbers, not cause of death.

These numbers are from the Department of Internal Affairs and are based on the registration of a death occurring. Registration can occur a day or two after a death and is logged on work days only. 

More detailed data around death comes from the Ministry of Health, but a spokesperson told Newsroom there’s a long wait between a death occurring and cause of death being released in publicly available statistics.

“Once we receive the notification of death, the ministry's mortality coding team review the person's health information, and assign cause of death codes. This process takes around six-12 months for most deaths. Any death which requires a coronial inquiry can take up to two to three (or even more) years for cause of death to be assigned. This is why we publish mortality information with a lag, to ensure relative completeness of data relating to cause of death.

“We will not be able to provide data on cause of death for at least a year, due to the the processes involved. In cases where a coroner's investigation is required, the delay could be more than a year.”

In one case where a person died at home, an autopsy later revealed Covid-19 was involved in the death. Newsroom asked if there have been other autopsies performed where Covid-19 was suspected. The ministry said it had nothing on its systems at this point to indicate this.

Suicides

Rumours spread on social media during the weekend about a rise in suicides during lockdown drew condemnation from Deputy Director-General, Mental Health and Addiction Robyn Shearer and the Director, Suicide Prevention Office Carla na Nagara.

“The Covid-19 response may have significant, long-term effects on people’s lives BUT it is not inevitable that there will be a significant increase in serious mental health issues or suicides.”

Any release of data relating to suicides will be made by the chief coroner. This is normally released annually.

“Suicide numbers may increase as a result of the Covid-19 response and they may decrease. Data from previous international crises have shown both outcomes ... Every life matters; it’s vital we focus on preserving life rather than speculating about the likelihood of ending it." 

Other deaths in April

Perhaps unsurprisingly the lockdown appears to have reduced some of the deaths that would regularly occur.

Roads empty of cars during the lockdown have meant fewer fatal accidents. The provisional April road toll of nine deaths is the lowest since 1965. 

Deserted workplaces have also seen fewer fatalities. Numbers haven’t been officially released by Worksafe, but it said it only had three notifications in April. These may still be transferred to other agencies and not end up classified as workplace deaths.

Where to get help

1737, Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland

Youthline – 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email talk@youthline.co.nz or online chat

Samaritans – 0800 726 666

Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

What's Up – 0800 942 8787 (for 5–18 year olds). Phone counselling is available Monday to Friday, midday–11pm and weekends, 3pm–11pm. Online chat is available 7pm–10pm daily.

Kidsline – 0800 54 37 54 (0800 kidsline) for young people up to 18 years of age. Open 24/7.

thelowdown.co.nz – or email team@thelowdown.co.nz or free text 5626

Anxiety New Zealand - 0800 ANXIETY (0800 269 4389)

Rural Support Trust - 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)

Supporting Families in Mental Illness - 0800 732 825

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