The recent significant spike in reported COVID-19 deaths is confusing a more hopeful trend of decreasing aged-care fatalities, according to a leading health expert.
The daily coronavirus death toll in Victoria reached a record high of 59 on Friday, but 50 of those deaths occurred in aged-care facilities as far back as July.
The ‘catch-up’ reporting was delayed because of state and federal governments working together with the aged care sector on reconciling the data before updating the Victorian death toll, the state’s Department of Health and Human Services said.
The DHHS said of the 41 COVID deaths reported on Monday, 22 had occurred in the weeks leading up to August 27, but were only reported by aged care facilities on Sunday.
When an aged care facility has an outbreak, all residents get tested, Professor Catherine Bennett, chair in epidemiology at Deakin University, explained.
If someone dies, the question then is, even if they had COVID-19, did they die from it?
In explaining the reporting lag, Premier Daniel Andrews on Friday said work is done to ascertain which deaths could be attributed to the “likely and probable cause being the coronavirus”.
It’s believed between a quarter and a third of people who acquire COVID-19 in aged care pass away, Professor Bennett said.
Therefore, there’s a high suspicion that deaths in aged care during an outbreak are going to be attributable to COVID-19, she said.
Professor Bennett believes the problem is with how deaths in Commonwealth government-managed aged care facilities are reported.
The deaths are reported to an aged-care agency that collates the information which then gets sent to the federal government, who manages the data, Professor Bennett said.
The state health department which is also collating the mortality data is then comparing the numbers they have directly from the aged-care facility with what’s been reported to the federal government, she continued.
“Clearly, there were cases that weren’t counted in the normal state-level reporting, that are now being matched up with what is known at the federal level,” she said.
“While it’s very sobering because it tells us the extent of the impact of this virus… what we are seeing behind these catch-up reports is the daily reports of new deaths coming down.”
Dr Alex Polyakov, epidemiologist and senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne, said delayed reporting may also be the result of investigations into the cause of such deaths.
He said there is a significant difference between someone dying because they had COVID-19 or someone with COVID-19 dying of unrelated causes.
That’s what health authorities may be trying to work out in certain cases – and it could take a few days, if not weeks to decide on whether to include a particular death into the coronavirus death toll, Dr Polyakov said.