August 13, 2021

Weekly EconMinute—Excess mortality

In this week’s EconMinute, we’re talking about excess mortality.

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Excess Deaths 2020

Source: Statistics Canada

Excess Deaths 2021

Source: Statistics Canada

COVID has taken a toll on communities and families across Canada in many ways. Of course, the most direct and serious consequence has been through lives lost to the virus. However, COVID could also have indirect consequences on health and mortality: negatively or positively. On the one hand, it could exacerbate mental health issues, delay medical checkups and procedures, or increase substance abuse. On the other, if could decrease deaths due to other causes, if, for example, individuals are more conscientious of germs, which limits the spread of infections and viruses.  

To better understand these impacts, Statistics Canada has been tracking excess mortality—how death rates in a given week compare with historical norms. Though there is always some degree of variation from year to year, a substantial and consistent deviation from historic norms is an important indication of excess mortality directly because of COVID, or indirectly because of other factors.

How has COVID—directly and indirectly—impacted mortality in Canada? On the surface, about as one might expect, rising and falling roughly in parallel with case counts. More recently, with better health practices and vaccinations, excess deaths are now within the range of historic norms.

However, what the aggregate numbers conceal is an important difference between younger and older Canadians: while older Canadians have seen more deaths due to COVID directly, younger Canadians have seen more deaths due to the indirect consequences of the pandemic.

  • Among those 85+, the number of excess deaths since September 2020 has actually been lower than the official number of people who died from COVID. This suggests two things could be at play: COVID is taking a heavy toll on those already at high risk of dying and/or perhaps practices to protect against COVID have helped to decrease deaths due to other causes as well.
  • Among those <65, the story is different. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the data show excess mortality among this group; however, it cannot be explained by COVID directly.  From March 2020 to April 2021 in Canada, there were 7,150 more deaths than expected but just 1,600 deaths from COVID.
  • This suggests a larger indirect consequence of the pandemic on younger Canadians. For instance, Statistics Canada notes that there has been recent evidence suggesting a higher number of substance use-related deaths.

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