The Australian Bureau of Statistics this week released a provisional tally of the changes in Australia’s overall death rate amid the coronavirus epidemic.
The figures record 33,066 doctor-certified deaths in Australia from January 1 to March 31, 2020—compared with an average of 32,249 during the corresponding months during the years 2015-19.
What’s more, the final week of March 2020 featured the highest weekly death rate of the entire three-month period, with 2,649 recorded deaths. That week also featured the highest numbers of deaths from respiratory diseases, diabetes and dementia.
Australia has had 103 known COVID-19-related deaths, with 21 reported before the end of March. The ABS death counts for respiratory diseases do not include these known cases, but might include COVID-19 deaths that were not recognized or confirmed as such at the time.
Overall, there were more than 800 “excess deaths” in the first quarter of 2020, compared with the average of the previous five years. The 103 confirmed COVID-19 deaths represent just a small fraction of these deaths. But my analysis shows that even in the early days of the pandemic, there are some signs that the impact of COVID-19 on Australia’s death rate may be bigger than the official tally suggests.
Death data allow us to monitor death rates by age, gender, location and cause, and to assess how death rates are changing over time. “Excess deaths”—those that exceed the long-term average—are particularly important to understand, not least during a pandemic but also because they could be due to preventable causes.
The coronavirus death toll has become a feature of media coverage during the COVID-19 outbreak. Unlike in many other countries, the epidemic has stayed within the capacity of Australia’s health system, so we might reasonably expect all COVID-19-related deaths to have been counted accurately.