Change to how COVID deaths recorded causes spike in Manitoba stats


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Manitoba recorded more COVID-19 deaths in 2022 than it did in the previous two years of the pandemic, but the province’s public health team advises against making such a comparison.

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Manitoba recorded more COVID-19 deaths in 2022 than it did in the previous two years of the pandemic, but the province’s public health team advises against making such a comparison.

That’s because, on March 15, the same day all public-health restrictions were lifted in Manitoba, the province changed its definition of what’s considered a COVID-19 death. Deaths “due to COVID” became “deaths associated with COVID.”

The broader scope of data collection includes people who died within 30 days of testing positive, but didn’t necessarily die of COVID-19.

As the provincial public health unit states, “the reason for death does not have to be attributable to COVID-19. A positive laboratory test is sufficient for reporting.”

So, the 2022 death toll shouldn’t be compared to previous years, a provincial spokesperson stated.

Manitoba’s public health unit has not provided an official count of COVID deaths by year. On Wednesday, a provincial spokesperson said those statistics were not readily available.

“It must be noted that a direct year-over-year comparison is not meaningful given those changes in context, e.g., definition, testing strategies,” a provincial spokesperson stated.

Caution should be used when comparing 2022 data against previous years due to a change in reporting as Public Health moves from pandemic response, to endemic monitoring,” a spokesperson for Health Minister Audrey Gordon stated in an email.

A Free Press analysis of available provincial data shows approximately 932 deaths were attributed to COVID-19 in 2022, the latter nine months of which were “COVID-associated deaths.”

In 2021, there were 723 COVID deaths, and in 2020, 665.

Across Canada, the number of reported COVID deaths in 2022 exceeded the death toll in 2021 or 2020, according to the most recent data available from the Public Health Agency of Canada as of Dec. 17. But the agency pulls from provincial death counts, and not all provinces use the same definition of what qualifies as a COVID death.

The World Health Organization considers it to be “a death resulting from a clinically compatible illness in a probable or confirmed COVID-19 case, unless there is a clear alternative cause of death that cannot be related to COVID-19 disease (e.g. trauma). There should be no period of complete recovery between the illness and death.”

Manitoba used that definition prior to March 15, 2022.

The existing definition means a Manitoban could die of an unrelated cause, such as a car accident, and still be counted among COVID deaths if they had tested positive for the virus less than a month before they died.

Winnipeg epidemiologist Cynthia Carr said definitions such as this often change over time, but when that happens, agencies need to be transparent and continue to report data under both definitions during the transition period.

“The worst thing we can do is confuse people because it creates distrust, but it also creates anxiety,” which has escalated during the pandemic, Carr said.

She said she’s concerned people may be confused and use the data as an excuse not to get vaccinated.

To combat misinformation, more specific detail is needed from the province and public-health agencies, she said.

Underlying cause and contributing causes of death are reported as standard practice by other agencies. If provincial governments change their definition of what constitutes a COVID death, those changes need to be clearly explained in the data.

“We do need to be able to understand: are these national numbers an increase in deaths, or just a change in definitions? Because my largest fear is it’s undermining the belief and trust in vaccines as protective,” Carr said.

Asked for comment on the high number of COVID deaths in 2022, and asked what the government is doing to prevent more deaths, the health minister’s office emphasized the importance of getting vaccinated.

“As per public health and medical experts, getting vaccinated for both COVID-19 and influenza is the best way to protect yourself during flu season. In the fall of 2022, Manitoba obtained a supply of the bivalent vaccine that has been available to Manitobans 18 and older since Sept. 21.

The bivalent vaccine is the only vaccine that creates best outcomes for both the original and the Omicron strains of coronavirus. Following the fundamentals, such as staying home when sick and wearing a mask in crowded spaces, is recommended for those at higher risk.

Katie May

Katie May

Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.

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