The new Statistics NZ figures provide a measure of the overall rate of deaths in New Zealand during the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic years. It is not a measure of people known to have died from COVID-19 and reflects all causes of deaths during this time.
Comparing the actual number of deaths in New Zealand since the start of the pandemic with the expected number of deaths during that period, based on earlier years’ figures, shows fewer deaths than expected.
We recognise the pain of losing a family member or friend, and do not wish to diminish that, but it is welcome that this data, which is the best measure we have to date, shows there was not a higher-than-normal death rate in New Zealand over the first two years of the pandemic.
This reflected the benefits of our COVID-19 response in reducing exposure to the virus and protecting our more vulnerable New Zealanders and a decision to implement a nationwide response coordinated from the centre.
Vaccination has played a key role, along with border and isolation measures, in keeping people safe from the more deadly variants of COVID-19 by keeping them out of the community or significantly limiting their spread.
It also reflects our ability to continue to provide non COVID-19-related health services and procedures to the public, which many other countries had to severely curtail.
For instance, if New Zealand had a similar rate of COVID-19 mortality as the United States, we would be reporting approximately 15,000 deaths from COVID-19 today.
Despite doing better than most countries, these deaths are a reminder that, while most people with COVID-19 will experience a mild to moderate illness, for some people it can lead to severe illness and even death. Being up to date with vaccinations, wearing a mask indoors and staying home if unwell can help protect themselves and others from COVID-19 and potentially save lives.
Excess mortality contributes to our overall picture of the toll of the pandemic, including any changes in mortality that are directly or indirectly due to the pandemic.
The Statistics New Zealand measures, in conjunction with previous research, indicate that:
- In 2020, the first year of the pandemic, the proportion of people that died in New Zealand dropped for reasons including a reduction in accident-related deaths and the closed borders greatly reducing influenza and other respiratory in New Zealand in 2020.
- In 2021, the second year of the pandemic, the rate of deaths followed a similar pattern to that seen in 2019 prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, though deaths from COVID-19 were low.
- In 2020 and 2021, the rate of deaths among people over-90-years-old, the population among the most at risk from COVID-19, remained the same or even lower than expected compared with most other countries. Again, this reflected the benefits of our COVID-19 response in reducing exposure to the virus and protecting our more vulnerable New Zealanders.
- Sadly, during the Omicron outbreak we have seen an increase in the rate of deaths among people over 90 compared to pre-pandemic years. However, to put these numbers in context, the mortality rate in the 90+ group in the last few weeks is still lower than the average pre-pandemic peak mortality for this age group that we normally see during the winter months.
- This measure provides a useful indication of the impact of COVID-19 on overall death rates but cannot by itself indicate how many people have died from COVID-19.
An important distinction to make is that people can die with COVID-19 as the direct cause, or COVID-19 may be a contributing factor alongside other health conditions, or the cause of death may be unrelated to COVID-19, even if the person has returned a positive test recently.
The Ministry of Health has released updated information on this topic this morning.