Dr. Haggie, Unexpected Deaths, and Blips

By Roger Bill/February 10, 2022

During a provincial government COVID media briefing last week, Health Minister Dr. John Haggie was asked why the number of people unexpectedly dying in the province began to climb last summer. The physician/politician who often reminds us he is guided by science replied, “The analysis of that data has not yet been completed,” but the numbers being reported by Statistics Canada, he added, are just a “Blip.”

There is nothing new nor revolutionary about how Statistics Canada counts deaths. It records the actual number of people who die, compares it to the number of people who were expected to die, and then arrives at a number called excess mortality or excess deaths. 

Since we know how many people die each year of old age or from heart attacks or car accidents or suicide or murder or drowning or drug overdoses, researchers are able to predict how many people will die over the course of a year. When the number of actual deaths exceeds the number of expected deaths, the question is, why are all these additional people dying?

Why the question came up at the provincial government COVID briefing last week is because a recently completed, peer-reviewed study led by scientists at the University of Toronto concluded the additional deaths showing up in Statistics Canada data are COVID deaths. The authors of the report said it, “does not yet appear that there are any obvious alternative explanations.” 

In an interview for The Shoreline News, the lead author of the study, Dr. Tara Moriarty, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto said, “It’s possible that half or more of COVID deaths are missed” in Newfoundland and Labrador. Dr. Moriarty says the province’s likely rate of undercounting COVID deaths is on par with the rest of Canada and the main reason is inadequate testing.

Canada’s problem, according to Dr. Moriarty, is not testing enough, not testing in the right places, and what testing that is being done is not being reported in a timely fashion. The result, she says, is we’ve been slow to adopt “public health care interventions that could have saved many lives.” 

Dr. Moriarty says the problem plaguing researchers like herself and public health officials like Dr. Janet Fitzgerald and political leaders like Dr. Haggie and Premier Andrew Furey is that dealing with COVID is like “trying to fly a plane in fog.” One recommendation of her study for clearing away some of the fog is do COVID testing on all people who die in any setting. Our weakness in testing has put us in what Dr. Moriarty describes as “sort of a black hole” where, as we eventually discover what happened, we find, “we did much worse than we thought.”

There is another and increasingly important reason to get the numbers right. The government’s response has gone from trying to prevent COVID from getting into the province to accepting that it is here. The messaging from doctors Fitzgerald, Furey, and Haggie is that we’re going to live with it and COVID deaths will be a permanent part of everyday life. The responsibility now shifts to individuals to weigh risks and make decisions about how they will live with COVID. What should accompany that weighing of risks, according to Dr. Moriarty, is a responsibility on the part of government to get better numbers, do better science, and improve the information individuals are going to rely on when making choices. 

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