Sask. might not have counted all COVID-19 deaths, excess mortality numbers suggest
Data from Statistics Canada shows that Saskatchewan recorded 1,288 excess mortalities in 2021
Data from Statistics Canada and confirmation from the Saskatchewan government indicate the province might have undercounted COVID-19 deaths in 2021.
It's the result of a figure known as excess mortality, which happens when more deaths occur during a certain period of time than what would be typically expected.
Data from the federal agency shows that last year Saskatchewan recorded 11,115 deaths. With only 9,833 deaths expected that year, Saskatchewan experienced 1,288 excess mortalities.
Saskatchewan only recorded 839 confirmed COVID-19 deaths in 2021.
The province's Ministry of Health confirmed in a statement that it's possible the province has not counted all deaths caused by COVID-19.
"There could be some proportion of the excess mortality that may be unreported COVID-19 deaths," the province said.
The admission — as well as the data from Statistics Canada — does not mean that all excess deaths can be attributed to COVID-19.
Tara Moriarty, a researcher at the University of Toronto, says that at least some of the excess deaths are likely the result of drug overdoses.
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The province said some of the excess mortalities recorded in Saskatchewan could have a relationship with the pandemic, including the result of "restrictions to those seeking medical care during the pandemic, changes in care-seeking behaviour, an increase in opioid and drug deaths."
Why is Saskatchewan missing COVID-19 deaths?
Saskatchewan, and other provinces in Canada, can miss out on counting COVID-19-related deaths due to a number of factors .
It often comes down to testing, Moriarty said.
"If someone died of COVID but was never tested, and it looked and smelled and everything else like COVID but you didn't test them when they died, then it wouldn't be reported as a COVID death," she said.
"That's a lot more common than people realize."
The province said it has no estimate on how many deaths due to COVID-19 may not have been recorded and that data is continually updated, with the record being revised as new information is received.
Another factor is how governments test for COVID-19.
In Saskatchewan, the general public does not have access to COVID-19 PCR tests.
Instead, people are encouraged to rely on the results of rapid tests — which can be picked up at locations throughout the province — to determine whether they have COVID-19.
"Saskatchewan has had very low testing for the scale of its epidemic. And like other provinces where testing has been very low for the scale of its epidemic, like B.C., Saskatchewan historically... likely missed a lot of its COVID deaths," said Moriarty.
The Ministry of Health said that in Saskatchewan acute care settings, the majority of residents admitted to hospital will be tested for COVID-19.
"As a result, it is anticipated that most COVID-19 deaths occurring within the acute care system are captured in the government's death reporting statistics," the ministry said.
The province said it's continually reviewing and revising its COVID-19 surveillance efforts and adheres to "best practices in Canada and the world."
Tracing the pandemic
With the latest data from Statistics Canada, an analysis by CBC News shows the effects of the pandemic on Saskatchewan between 2020 and the end of 2021.
In the beginning of the the pandemic, Saskatchewan was not as impacted as other provinces, such as Ontario or Quebec.
Saskatchewan did not record its first COVID-19-related deaths until March 30, 2020, and it didn't breach 100 deaths until Dec. 16, 2020.
However, after that deaths accelerated rapidly through 2021.
The purple line in the graph tracks the number of new COVID-19 deaths reported in a week as tallied by the Saskatchewan government. The orange line shows the excess mortality estimate.
In 2021, some of the peaks in the two lines correspond to one another.
The number of COVID-19 deaths recorded throughout January 2021 — the second-deadliest month of the pandemic in Saskatchewan — nearly matches the number of estimated excess mortalities.
In the two years between Jan. 1 2020, and Jan. 1 2022, Saskatchewan reported 955 deaths confirmed to be caused by COVID-19.
The excess mortality estimate over the same period was 1,809, according to Statistics Canada.