Australia’s coronavirus death toll is likely even higher than what has been reported, a new research paper shows.
That’s because people were not being tested for COVID-19 during the first wave of cases in April and March, so infections weren’t detected.
The research paper, published on Thursday by the Actuaries Institute, also found a spike in deaths from pneumonia, stroke and diabetes during this time, which suggests COVID deaths may have been attributed to these other causes instead.
“The last week of March and the first week of April each had much higher deaths than predicted,” said Jennifer Lang, Convener of the Actuaries Institute’s COVID-19 Working Group.
Road accident deaths, however, have slightly declined this year, presumably due to lockdown restrictions limiting travel.
Defining COVID-19 deaths ‘fraught with difficulty’
Professor Adrian Esterman, chair of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of South Australia, said determining whether a patient had died from COVID-19, or with it, was “fraught with difficulty”.
“COVID can cause death – some die from acute respiratory failure due to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, where we know they wouldn’t have died unless they had COVID,” he told The New Daily.
“But someone could die from a heart attack and have been infected, so that’d be someone dying with COVID.”
Professor Esterman agreed with the research paper’s suggestion that more people have likely died from coronavirus than first reported.
“A key issue is, people weren’t coming to authorities and getting tested,” he said.
“They may have died from pneumonia and, of course, we wouldn’t have known it had anything to do with COVID-19.”
He added, “quite a high percentage” of infected people were asymptomatic and didn’t show any symptoms.
“A lot of people would’ve gotten sick, recovered and not been counted in the system,” he said.
Back in May, a French hospital retested old samples from pneumonia patients and discovered that it treated a man who had COVID-19 as early as 27 December, nearly a month before the French government confirmed its first cases.
Yves Cohen, of the Avicenne and Jean Verdier hospitals in the northern suburbs of Paris, said scientists had retested samples from 24 patients treated in December and January who tested negative for the flu.
“Of the 24, we had one who was positive for COVID-19 on 27 December,” he said.
In Australia, the definition of a coronavirus death is someone who was confirmed to have had COVID-19, or was a suspected case, Professor Esterman said.
Other countries have been counting deaths differently.
In the United Kingdom, for example, hundreds of deaths in aged care homes were not counted as part of the nation’s official coronavirus death toll during the first few months of the outbreak.
Instead, the cause of those deaths was attributed to other illnesses related to old age.
Annette Dobson, professor of biostatistics at the University of Queensland, said Australia’s national death toll was frequently being readjusted to account for the reclassification of coronavirus deaths.
“It may be that they haven’t counted a death, and then they get the positive test result so they shift it from some other cause to COVID,” she said.
“It’s likely the ones in aged care, where perhaps there wasn’t a lot of concern about the diagnoses and they would’ve died in the following week or two, that their deaths were brought forward due to COVID.”
Professor Dobson said the deaths of Australians who also suffered other health conditions were subjected to that key question: Did they die of coronavirus, or with it?
“An awful lot of the deaths are reported to be in people with other conditions,” she said.
“It’s a really important issue. It’s not just about COVID – it occurs for anything among the elderly. We get very high rates of death from dementia, but in fact it’s probably death with dementia.”