A spike in N.B. heart and stroke deaths in 2021 cited as COVID's handiwork
'COVID causes vascular damage and there's a lot of vascular death,' says expert
New figures show there was a surge in deaths from heart failure, lung disease and strokes in New Brunswick in 2021, as deaths from COVID-19 were also multiplying.
It's important evidence the virus has been killing provincial residents in multiple ways, according to infectious disease epidemiologist and University of Toronto professor Colin Furness, although New Brunswick health officials still are reluctant to endorse that view.
"COVID causes vascular damage, and there's a lot of vascular death," Furness said in an interview about the new information on what killed so many New Brunswick residents in 2021.
"We have no competing hypothesis [to COVID] for what is causing it. That's plenty for me to connect the dots."
Two weeks ago, Statistics Canada released a detailed accounting of deaths in New Brunswick in 2021 that for the first time includes causes.
The numbers show a final tally of 8,102 deaths that year, 607 more than in 2020.
The 8.1 per cent jump is the largest recorded in Canada among provinces in 2021, although most of the increase in New Brunswick occurred rapidly in just four months at the end of the year during a significant COVID-19 outbreak.
In December 2021 alone, 808 people in New Brunswick died, the most ever recorded in the province in a single month. It was 167 more deaths than in December 2020.
COVID deaths in New Brunswick did jump by 132 in 2021, including by 33 in December of that year. But figures now show it was a 208 person increase in deaths from heart failure and stroke that was the largest contributor to the total surge in fatalities.
Furness said COVID-19 does not appear on the death certificates of many who suffer fatal strokes or heart attacks but it has long been understood that the virus does damage the circulatory systems of some people it infects.
He believes it is unlikely that an increase in heart and stroke deaths in a population that has weathered a wave of COVID-19 infections is a coincidence.
"COVID does, in some people, really gruesome damage to their vascular system," Furness said.
"So that's damaging heart muscle, it's damaging lungs, it's damaging the lining of your blood vessels in particular. That leads to stiffening and that leads to clotting."
That is consistent with the position of the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation, which has consistently named COVID as a cause of both heart attack and stroke in some people who contract the virus.
"It's not just a respiratory disease, but a vascular one, too," the foundation says on its website.
But New Brunswick health officials say it is still not clear to them how much death in 2021 can be blamed on COVID, or any other specific factor, despite promises from two separate health ministers to get to the bottom of the issue.
"It is a question for which New Brunswickers need to have an answer, and I assure that it is going to happen," former health minister Dorothy Shephard told the legislature in June 2022, when questions about 2021 death numbers first surfaced.
Earlier this year, Health Minister Bruce Fitch also said it was important to know what caused spikes in deaths that hit the public, when he was asked about even higher mortality totals in the province that are currently estimated for 2022.
"It is very, very clear that this is a concern," said Fitch.
"If there is an anomaly, Public Health would certainly act on that and inform the public."
However, in a statement emailed last week, the Department of Health said it remains uncertain why death rates surged in either 2021 or 2022 and suggested population changes might have been the key issue.
"It is important to note that increases in the overall number of deaths could be attributed to a number of factors," communications officer Sean Hatchard wrote.
"Anyone analyzing the number of deaths must consider the increase in population New Brunswick experienced the last few years."
New Brunswick's population did grow in 2021 but by less than one per cent over 2020. And because new arrivals to New Brunswick tend to be a younger than those already in the province, Statistics Canada modelling suggests it would have had almost no affect on death counts that year.
Furness said the evidence of COVID being the culprit behind unexplained increases in death totals, especially those involving increased numbers of heart, stroke and other vascular deaths, should be clear to Public Health officials and explained in detail to the public.
"We are experiencing a broad failure of Public Health to talk frankly about this," said Furness.
"I'm honestly a little bit baffled by that. No one seems to want to talk in Public Health about COVID at all."