New Brunswick

Mysterious spike in N.B. deaths in 2021 not due to COVID, health minister says

A mysterious spike in 'excess' deaths that began last summer as the COVID-19 Delta variant began spreading in the province saw 636 more deaths than normal over a 20-week period, according to new estimates.  

Health Department unsure what caused 636 'excess' deaths over 20 weeks

New Brunswick Health Minister Dorothy Shephard told MLAs Wednesday she does not know why deaths spiked in the province last summer, but doubted they were undetected COVID fatalities. (Shane Magee/CBC)

A mysterious spike in "excess" deaths in New Brunswick that began last summer as the COVID-19 Delta variant began spreading in the province saw 636 more deaths than normal over a 20-week period, according to new estimates. 

That is an apparent mismatch with the 79 COVID deaths New Brunswick reported during the 20 weeks.

On Wednesday, Health Minister Dorothy Shephard told the legislature she does not know why deaths jumped so high, but said she doubts it was caused by undetected COVID cases.

"We have been extremely transparent with our COVID-19 numbers and our COVID-19 deaths," Shephard said during question period. 

"I cannot explain those numbers at this actual moment, but the department has been asked to look at it, and it will do so as we progress through our evaluations," she said.

In an ongoing study of what it calls "provisional death counts and excess mortality" related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Statistics Canada reported new figures this week.

The figures show that beginning the week of July 17, 2021, and extending through the week of Nov. 27, New Brunswick experienced 636 more deaths than would normally be expected to occur in that period. 

Excess deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic are believed to be connected to the effects of the virus circulating in the community, although the exact links to individual deaths are not necessarily known. 

Important to measure 'excess' deaths StatsCan:

    Some deaths are caused by the virus directly, but some can be caused by other factors such as medical procedures  delayed or cancelled because of pandemic restrictions.

    "To understand the direct and indirect consequences of the pandemic, it is important to measure excess mortality, which occurs when there are more deaths than expected in a given period," Statistics Canada writes in an explanation of the significance of its study.

    In New Brunswick's case, death estimates are so far only available up to the end of November. But they show a distinct bump in fatalities that roughly coincides with the arrival of the COVID-19 delta variant in the province last summer, along with the ending of public health masking orders.

    Death counts were higher than normal in each week of the 20-week period, a critical clue when something out of the ordinary is claiming lives, according to Statistics Canada.

    "There is evidence of excess mortality when weekly deaths are consistently higher than the expected number, but especially when they exceed the range of what is expected over several consecutive weeks," it writes in an explanation of the significance of sustained high death counts.

    The 636 "excess" deaths detected in New Brunswick were 22 per cent more than the number expected during the period. More perplexing is that this was despite New Brunswick reporting a limited number of COVID deaths.

    Similar excess death numbers to New Brunswick's were reported in Saskatchewan (731) and Quebec (681) at the same time, but each province also reported over 340 COVID deaths to help explain those numbers.

    Researcher suspects inadequate testing 

    Last month, Tara Moriarty, an associate professor and infectious disease researcher at the University of Toronto, said excess deaths in New Brunswick are likely COVID-19 cases that went undetected by the province because of inadequate testing and tracking of cases.

    "Most provinces, including New Brunswick, only report COVID deaths if there's a positive PCR test associated with them," said Moriarty.   

    "A big part of why COVID deaths go underreported is because there's limited access to PCR testing and New Brunswick has for quite a long time under-tested compared to Quebec, for example."

    Shephard rejected that idea in the legislature, and later in an email to CBC News her department said there is no reason to believe more people died from COVID-19 in New Brunswick last summer and fall than the government has reported.

    "Our hospital services were operating within capacity and extensive PCR testing within hospitals and long-term care facilities was providing reliable data to our COVID-19 trackers on infections and deaths," wrote department spokesperson Michelle Guenard, who noted Statistics Canada data is "provisional" and subject to revisions.

    "It is unlikely that observed excess deaths would be attributable directly to COVID-19," she said.

    ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Robert Jones

    Reporter

    Robert Jones has been a reporter and producer with CBC New Brunswick since 1990. His investigative reports on petroleum pricing in New Brunswick won several regional and national awards and led to the adoption of price regulation in 2006.

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