B.C.'s 'excess death' toll remains high due to COVID-19, opioid crisis

StatCan's provisional reports on excess mortality show more British Columbians dying than usual, almost three years into COVID-19 and an opioid crisis that is getting worse.

Derrick Penner 4 minute read January 30, 2022

B.C. continues to experience more deaths than would normally be expected as COVID-19 drags into its third year, alongside the continuing opioid crisis, according to Statistics Canada.

The agency’s latest provisional report counted 2,145 more deaths than StatCan estimated would normally occur over the period between August and November, an increase of 22 per cent, at a time “significant excess mortality was observed” across the country, according to the agency.

B.C. and Alberta, which had 1,570 so-called excess deaths over that period, had higher mortality in all age groups “to differing degrees,” at a time both provinces recorded increases in the number of deaths attributed to COVID — 335 in Alberta and 430 in B.C.

“The people who die from COVID and with COVID have always been part of the tragedy of this pandemic,” said B.C.’s provincial health officer in a media briefing Friday.

“It is something that we’ve been watching and measuring in a way that we don’t for many other illnesses,” Dr. Bonnie Henry added in the briefing, which marked the second anniversary of counting B.C.’s first case of the novel coronavirus.

B.C. has counted 2,597 COVID-19 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, the province reported Friday, though some suspect the number might be an underestimate.

“We’ve always had full hospitals and always had lots of deaths,” said Dr. Srinivas Murthy, clinical associate professor in the University of B.C.’s faculty of medicine, in an assessment of the province’s experience during the pandemic.

And once excess mortality is considered, the numbers “might be higher than we thought they were,” Murthy said.

That is beside the toll the opioid crisis is taking on the B.C. Coroners Service, in December the service reported 1,782 overdose deaths in the first 10 months of 2021, which was higher than the 1,765 in all of 2020.

Excess-death figures have led officials in other locations to speculate that COVID is taking a bigger toll than reported.

In the U.S., Indiana insurance executive J. Scott Davison, with the firm OneAmerica, said death rates were 40 per cent more among working-age people than they were before the pandemic, and “the highest (rates) we have ever seen in the history of the business,” The Guardian reported.

In B.C., however, public-health officials said they have worked hard to avoid surprises and are “confident that there’s not a lot of people dying in the community from COVID-19 that we don’t know about.”

The coroner’s service has co-operated with public health since the beginning of the pandemic to identify suspected COVID fatalities among unexpected deaths that their office examines. In those cases, Henry said there is often a lag in their findings because sometimes it takes several weeks for post mortem test results to be reported back to public health.

“I will say that … if anything, we overcall deaths from COVID,” Henry said.

In long-term care homes, Henry said any death that is within 30 days of a positive test is counted as a COVID-19 death, even if the virus might have contributed little to the outcome.

Henry said Friday that age remains the biggest risk factor for severe illness and death with 41 per cent of deaths recorded in January related to outbreaks in long-term care facilities.

“Most of the people who are dying outside of those outbreaks are older people with underlying illnesses (and) a high proportion of them are people who don’t have the protection from vaccination,” Henry said.

In the 153 COVID deaths recorded by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control between Dec. 28 and Friday, 49 of the deceased were unvaccinated, 35 of them were over the age of 70. Another 65 of the deceased were over 70 and were triple-vaccinated.



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