No Covid-19 deaths for at least a week: Milestone or mix-up?

Reports of there being no Covid-19 deaths during a week in March were mistakenly exaggerated.

Reports of there being no Covid-19 deaths during a week in March were mistakenly exaggerated. Photo: Getty

On Thursday, the esteemed Australian Science Media Centre (Scimex) reported that, for the first time since the pandemic, Australia had gone at least a week without recording any Covid-19 deaths.

Cosmos, a trusted science site, first published the story, noting that data from the Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care, showed the rolling seven-day average number of deaths fell to zero briefly in March.

Meanwhile, the number of admissions to hospitals for the virus had fallen to its lowest level since January 2022.

Scimex then published a range of expert opinion, including one expert  who was sceptical of the no-deaths claim.

News media, including The New Daily, ran the no-deaths story on Friday morning. It turns out that there is indeed good news on the Covid-19 numbers. It’s just not quite as good as was initially trumpeted.

A small number of deaths, actually

Then, on Friday afternoon, after a complaint from Karen Cutter, Chair of the Actuaries Institute’s Mortality Working Group, Scimex corrected the story:

“Experts have warned that data delays meant the most recent data is likely to be less accurate, and the data has since been updated to reflect a small number of deaths.”

Ms Cutter’s analysis was then published alongside the other expert opinions. The problem, she said, was the no-deaths claim relied on a graph from the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System.

We published the graph (below) in our initial story.

covid deaths australiaSource: National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System, as at April 10, 2024

Ms Cutter wrote: “The graph on the Federal Health website showing COVID-19 associated deaths is based on date of death, but there are delays between when a death occurs and when it is reported.

“So for the most recent month shown, the number of deaths is vastly understated as not all deaths have been reported.

“This is particularly the case for the most recent week, where it is almost impossible for a death to happen and for it to be captured in the Federal database.

“As such, to state that there have been no COVID-19 deaths in the last week based on this graph is simply not true.”

The point had already been raised

In our earlier story, we queried the no-deaths claim based on opinion from Associate Professor James Wood, an infectious disease modeller from the University of NSW.

He didn’t believe the zero-deaths interpretation of the data.

“While this is encouraging data,” he said, “it’s almost certainly not correct that there were zero Covid deaths in that week.”

How come? Because “our near real-time reporting system for reporting of deaths has mostly wound down and we now need to rely on the slower ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) reporting, which tends to occur at about a two-month delay”.

Government dropping the ball

Professor Adrian Esterman is chair of biostatistics at the University of South Australia. He warned against complacency.

“Although Australia is in its best position with respect to Covid-19 for some time, we should not get complacent, He said.

He noted that there were more than 250 active Covid outbreaks in residential aged-care homes, and only 36 per cent of Australians aged 75 and over have had a booster shot within the past six months.

“We see very little messaging from any of our governments encouraging elderly people to get vaccinated,” he said.

“This is not good enough. We should at the very least still be doing all we can to protect our vulnerable population.”

Other news outlets are continuing to publish the original story.

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