Sex-based COVID-19 data shows more men than women dying in Sask., but that's only part of the story

One expert says that to understand COVID-19 in Saskatchewan, the province needs to collect better data and share it with the public.

New data released by the province provides a better understanding of the effects of the virus in Sask.

Registered nurse Jose Pasion tends to a patient in the intensive care unit (ICU) at Scarborough Health Network’s Centenary Hospital, in north-east Toronto, on Apr. 8, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

In more than 20 months since the first COVID-19 case was reported in Saskatchewan, hundreds of people with the virus have died. 

Now, for the first time during the pandemic, Saskatchewan has released data that breaks down the responses to COVID-19 by sex. 

It gives residents a better understanding of how the virus has affected the province and confirms that more males residents of Saskatchewan are dying from COVID-19 than female residents.

One expert is welcoming the release of the data, but says that it only provides a piece of the complex puzzle that is understanding the virus.

A breakdown 

As of Nov. 6, 873 people with COVID-19 are known to have died in Saskatchewan. That's about 1.1 per cent of all COVID-19 cases recorded in Saskatchewan up to then.

According to the new data released by the provincial government, 365 of those deaths were females while 508 deaths were males.

That's a 58 to 41 per cent split between male and female.

The knowledge that more men are dying from COVID-19 isn't something new. It's been documented by the New York Times, The Washington Post and medical researchers across the world. 

But the release of the data is the first time that information has been confirmed in Saskatchewan.

The split by sex for deaths among male and female patients contrasts heavily with the number of cases and hospitalizations. The split in sex for cases sits at about 50-50 for male and female. In hospitalizations, the split is 48 per cent female, 52 per cent male. 

Unfortunately the data provided to CBC was a snapshot in time. There is no data on deaths in a month-by-month format. That means we can't tell if the arrival of different COVID-19 variants had an effect. 

But having the data is important, said Nazeem Muhajarine, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan. 

Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine said the N.W.T.'s optional approach differs from the vaccine mandates brought in across the country. (Submitted by Nazeem Muhajarine)

What's less understood is why more men die from the virus, although there are several plausible explanations. 

Scientists and researchers are still picking apart data to understand COVID-19, and it's not necessarily clear that a male or female has a different biological response to COVID-19. 

But we know that age is a factor in likely outcomes to COVID-19. 

"We know that older people are more vulnerable, particularly to more severe outcomes of COVID," he said. 

'Women get sicker and men die quicker'

 Muhajarine said a phrase often used by researchers can help us understand the split between the sexes.

"Women get sicker and men die quicker."

In general, men are more likely to have more adverse pre-existing conditions, while women are far more likely to seek medical treatment.

"Women suffer more, not because they are women, you know, but because they live longer," he said. "The life expectancy in women and chronic disease, particularly when you are older, kind of go hand in hand."

LISTEN| Who is avoiding vaccination? 

As of Tuesday, about 82 per-cent of eligible people in the province are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. So what about the remaining 18 per cent? We've heard about the hesitant, the people with exemptions, and the outright refusers. But until now, it's mostly been speculation about why people aren't getting the shot. Now, new research out of the University of Saskatchewan is uncovering why people might be avoiding it. Nazeem Muhajarine, a professor of community health and epidemiology at the U of S, is one of the researchers who's been looking into this. He joined Heather Morrison to talk about it. 8:09

Neither of those factors — age or pre-existing conditions — accounts for the gap between the sexes in COVID-19-related deaths, according to Muhajarine.  

The epidemiologist said that to understand the outcomes of COVID-19, researchers must look at a variety of factors, such as ethnic background, employment, sex and health status. 

In Saskatchewan, much of that data isn't readily available. 

Data issues

The data Saskatchewan provided to CBC doesn't allow for comparing age and sex at the same time. CBC was provided two different data sets.

The breakdown by sex also isn't available on the Saskatchewan COVID-19 dashboard. 

Gaps in data like that make it harder for researchers like Muhajarine to understand what's going on. 

As for data around race or ethnicity, the province said it's not collecting that information. 

The reporting systems that the SHA and Ministry of Health use does not have the ability to gather that race-based data, according to a statement provided by the Ministry of Heath to CBC News. 

"You have a gender attribute, you have an age attribute, and you have a location attribute where you live, and all of those are found in the same place. And you know … they're not separate," Muhjarine said.

He said the province can do better because other provinces are already providing that data. 

New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia currently provide a breakdown by sex on their respective COVID-19 dashboards. 

Saskatchewan doesn't make the data available on its dashboard.