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B.C. saw more deaths than expected over 18 months, but research can’t pinpoint why

Only 22 per cent of excess deaths during research period are directly attributed to COVID-19
A University of British Columbia researcher says it’s unclear what the cause of the majority of B.C.’s deaths during 18-months of the pandemic is. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

B.C. saw almost 10,000 more deaths than projected during an 18-month period of the pandemic, but with less than a quarter attributed to COVID-19, it’s unclear why.

The numbers, and accompanying questions, were released Monday (May 30) by University of British Columbia population and public health professor Kim McGrail in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

She compiled all excess deaths, both COVID-19-caused and not, from Canada’s provinces for the period between March 14, 2020 and Oct. 23, 2021. Excess deaths are those that occur beyond the number Statistics Canada projects to happen.

For B.C., StatCan estimated there would be 74,096 deaths during the 18 months studied. In reality, an additional 11.4 per cent or 9,496 people died, bringing the total count to 83,592.

The mystery isn’t in the number of excess deaths though, but in why the majority of them aren’t documented as directly caused by COVID-19. Of the 9,496 deaths, just 2,109 or 22.2 per cent are attributed to the virus.

McGrail says there is no easy answer.

(“Excess mortality, COVID-19 and health care systems in Canada,” Kimberlyn McGrail)
(“Excess mortality, COVID-19 and health care systems in Canada,” Kimberlyn McGrail)

One possibility is that B.C. is undercounting the number of people who die from COVID-19, by reporting their cause of death as something else.

Another source could be the record-breaking number of drug toxicity deaths recorded in 2020 and 2021. StatCan takes these deaths into account when it projects the expected deaths for a coming year, but the pandemic caused a sudden spike in fatal overdoses the agency couldn’t have predicted. Between 2019 and 2020, the total number of overdose deaths in B.C. jumped from 981 to 1,768, before increasing again to 2,236 in 2021.

B.C.’s heat dome also made an unexpected impact on death rates, McGrail says. Nearly 600 people died during the 2021 extreme weather event, according to the BC Coroners Service.

READ ALSO: Nearly 600 people died due to summer heat waves: BC Coroners Service

McGrail says delayed appointments and surgeries, fewer hospital beds and the worsening doctors shortage are other possible contributors. It will likely never be possible to quantify these though, she adds.

The real issue McGrail’s research touched on though, is the lack of consistency in mortality reporting across provinces.

According to her report, B.C. had the highest proportion of non-COVID excess deaths in the country during the study period, but McGrail says because each province reports deaths differently and relies on different definitions, it’s difficult to reliably compare them.

Consistency is vital for assessing national health care responses and working toward better future solutions, McGrail says. For instance, it would allow policy makers to determine how provinces’ different pandemic policies impacted death rates, she says.

In the future, McGrail says she’d like to see Canada invest in a shared, consistent reporting system and more in-depth forensic analysis.

(“Excess mortality, COVID-19 and health care systems in Canada,” Kimberlyn McGrail)
(“Excess mortality, COVID-19 and health care systems in Canada,” Kimberlyn McGrail)

READ ALSO: Pandemic impacted quality of illicit drugs and ‘contaminants’ in B.C., new study shows


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About the Author: Jane Skrypnek

I'm a provincial reporter for Black Press Media.
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