News

Proposal to end COVID daily death count

Burnet Institute

12 April, 2022

Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly, suggested at Senate estimates last week that the daily COVID death numbers should no longer be announced.

But will a bid to ‘live with’ the virus without scrutiny lead to more deaths?

Professor Allan Saul, honorary Research Fellow at Burnet Institute spoke with RN Drive’s Andy Park. Professor Saul has spent the last 40 years studying infectious diseases.

Below is an excerpt of the interview. Click HERE to listen to the entire interview on RN Drive’s website. Duration: 10min 44secs.

I’m very mindful of the sensitivities associated with citing deaths data but the reality is the lives of many thousands of Australians have been saved. We need to move away now from counting the number of people who die from COVID 19 on any one day towards a concept known as excess deaths - Professor Paul Kelly, Chief Medical Officer addressing Senate estimates.

Andy Park, presenter RN Drive

The COVID death poll in Australia this year alone already exceeds that of 2020 and 2021. combined. More than 4200 people have died since January the first and if the government gets its way soon, we may not be hearing about these deaths at all. Do Professor Kelly’s comments just reflect the reality that we’re all over COVID?

Professor Allan Saul, honorary Research Fellow at Burnet.

“I think absolutely. Everybody’s sick of COVID and we’ve become desensitised. And I think we can’t go on stressing ourselves day in day out. But on the other hand, there is a problem if we’re not getting that information in a timely manner.

“Excess deaths is a very blunt instrument for understanding what’s happening with COVID. This year already, we’ve had twice as many deaths, as happened in the last two years. We are running about 170 deaths last week and that’s about as many deaths as you would expect from car accidents in a couple of months, just to put that into perspective.”

Andy Park

Yeah, I was actually quite shocked to hear that statistic because as we sort of open the newspapers every day, we have Ukraine we have an election now it seems like COVID is yesterday’s news, but to know that there are that many families who are mourning the loss of a loved one is quite shocking. So why can’t or shouldn’t we rely on excess deaths to measure COVID fatalities?

> EXCESS DEATHS DATA AN INEXACT SCIENCE

Professor Saul

“Well, there’s several problems. One is that it’s a very inexact science and in fact, with all due respect to Professor Kelly, the numbers he gave to the Senate estimates last month came from a very complicated global statistical study published in the British journal The Lancet last month and that estimated that in 2020, and 2021, there’s about 18,000 less deaths than you would expect, and that would be wonderful.

“On the other hand, we actually don’t have to rely on complicated global models. The Australian Bureau of Statistics publishes the number of excess deaths. determined by counting up the certified death certificates and their estimate is there were 10,000 more deaths in 2020 and 2021 than we would have expected based upon the five years from 2015 to 2019. Now, I’m not saying that to try to discredit Professor Kelly, he quoted a reputable paper, but I am just saying that is a figure which is subject to very considerable uncertainty. It’s also not available in a timely manner. So we only just got the ABS data for 2020 and 2021 a couple of weeks ago, and so it’s not the sort of thing you can use for making judgments about how we need to work on progress.”

Andy Park

So if we did push this statistic into the dark is there any kind of comparison you can make with any other public health or public safety type issues where we sort of submerge part of the picture in lieu of another part of the picture so to speak?

Professor Saul

It’s a little difficult because we’ve been in the middle of an epidemic and if you wanted to compare it to something else, you’d probably need to compare it with other epidemics.

“But I think, thinking back a few years ago, we had a major flu outbreak we were getting flu data on a daily basis. And I think it’s really important because one of the problems with burying it, as you’ve already pointed out, people are unaware of what’s happening. But it also makes people less inclined to take very simple measures that would prevent that big excess of deaths and the huge big jump we’ve seen this year.

“I think we’re getting mixed messages. Currently, about 60 per cent of Australians over 16 have had a booster. The booster does two things. It helps stop you dying from COVID and getting very sick, but it also helps stop you transmit the disease. So we really, really want people to get boosted.

“Had we had people boosted up at around 80-90 per cent we wouldn’t be having this conversation now because COVID would have pretty much disappeared.” - Professor Allan Saul.

“On the other hand by not releasing the death figures because they’re not saying how many cases there are, it’s implying that this is all over, we don’t need to talk about it. So I think that makes the messaging for things that we really want people to do like getting the boosters a hard message to put across if we’re saying it’s all over folks, don’t worry about it. We’re going to ignore with the deaths.”

Andy Park

Paul Kelly’s comments were made before Senate estimates last week. Do you think that there’s any kind of political motive behind this plan to not report deaths, given how much higher they are and also the relevancy of how the federal government dealt with the pandemic as an election issue?

Professor Saul

“Well, I think undoubtedly it is an election issue and it is political. I can’t look into Professor Kelly’s head I have no way of knowing whether he was doing that as a political message and after all, he is not a politician, he is the Chief Health Officer. But I think there are implications for politics here and we need to keep people informed. It’s all about being a transparent open government.”

> MISINFORMATION AROUND OMICRON

Andy Park

It’s not just the way we record or even speak about COVID that’s shifted. We’ve also removed almost all of the restrictions that we were very used to a little while back. Vaccine mandates, you know, are quite a feature to this setting. So do you think we’ve shed these restrictions too quickly?

Professor Saul

“Well, personally, I do. I can certainly appreciate that people are sick of them. Can I just highlight one of the other sort of bits of misinformation out there. One of the implications is that the current COVID which is this BA.2 version of Omicron we hear is highly transmissible. Well in fact, the number of cases are going up across Australia and from that we can estimate what this wonderful figure called the Reproduction Ratio, the R, is.

“At the moment in Victoria (the R number) it’s about 1.08. In New South Wales, it’s about 1.06. That means if we reduce the transmission by just 8 per cent COVID would start going away. Now just for comparison, the R we had with wild type COVID in Melbourne in June and July of 2020 was 1.4. So that’s much, much higher. So this current COVID we’ve got is not highly infectious. In fact, it’s much more weakly infectious than the original COVID that we had in 2020. So it actually really wouldn’t take very much to control.”

> VACCINES-PLUS STRATEGY NEEDED

“I’ve already suggested one thing … if we got everybody boosted, that would go a long way towards controlling it, but very simple controls and we’re not talking about lockdowns, and curfews and restrictions on people moving. But mask usage, some thinking about densities, those things would probably be more than enough to get rid of the COVID we’ve got now. It’s not just cases coming up, it’s huge absenteeism I heard this morning that 20 per cent of security people at airports are missing, and that’s why there’s huge queues getting onto a plane. We’re hearing schools being closed down because we haven’t got teachers. We’re seeing the number of people in hospitals steadily going up. We got down to less than 30 per cent of the beds occupied about a month or two ago, but we’re back up to 60 per cent of the peak that we had at the end of January. So all of those things say that this is not going away. We have to think about it. It’s not hard. Some very simple measures would actually be quite effective at overcoming this.

> DOUBLE WHAMMY OF FLU AND COVID THIS WINTER?

Andy Park

How concerned are you about the potential double whammy of flu and COVID this coming winter?

Professor Saul

“Well I am concerned. I’m not so concerned about COVID taking off. Obviously there is some concern with any respiratory disease in winter. But I think the bigger trend with COVID is actually when we get new variants coming through and I’m not sure that’s finished yet. But there is a problem with flu and clearly flu will probably come back.

“Having both flu and COVID at the same time will put really big strains on our health systems. And it’s very difficult. You cannot distinguish flu from COVID unless you do a proper test so we won’t even really know the ratio. All we’ll see is a bigger burden on the hospitals.”

Find out more about our COVID-19 research which Professor Saul is involved in through our KNOW-C19 flagship initiative.

Contact Details

For more information in relation to this news article, please contact:

Professor Allan Saul

Senior Principal Research Fellow (Honorary)

Telephone

+61392822111

Email

allan.saul@honorary.burnet.edu.au

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