Researcher defends work after Sask. premier calls COVID-19 death study 'misinformation'

·4 min read
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said a study led by Tara Moriarty, a University of Toronto researcher, on excess deaths related to COVID-19 was
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said a study led by Tara Moriarty, a University of Toronto researcher, on excess deaths related to COVID-19 was

A University of Toronto researcher is defending her work after Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe referred to her estimate on excess deaths related to COVID-19 in the province as "egregious misinformation."

Tara Moriarty, an associate professor and infectious diseases researcher at the University of Toronto, has been studying excess deaths in Canada and how they relate to COVID-19.

She is the lead author for the working group of a peer-reviewed study published by the Royal Society of Canada on excess deaths during the pandemic.

Moriarty was featured in a recent Saskatoon StarPhoenix story, in which she said the number of Saskatchewan deaths could be seven times higher than the provincial total of 977.

Moe was asked about the province's reporting of deaths at a news conference on Monday.

"I'm hearing numbers that are in the thousands, that simply is nothing more than misinformation and it should be challenged," Moe said.

He said the province averages 10,000 deaths a year and a suggestion that COVID-19 deaths were being underreported "nothing short of some of the most egregious misinformation that I've seen throughout this pandemic. And it really shouldn't be spread."

WATCH | Researcher defends her work after Sask. premier refers to study on COVID-19 deaths as "misinformation":

Death count

According to Statistics Canada, there were 10,219 deaths in 2020 — 663 more than in 2019.

The 10-year average for deaths in Saskatchewan is 9,390. The province officially reported 153 COVID-19 deaths in 2020.

On Monday, Moriarty defended the work of her team and her estimate on deaths in a letter to Moe she posted on Twitter.

Moriarty said Saskatchewan could see 700 deaths in the coming months, offered to help Saskatchewan prevent deaths and explain how deaths have been missed.

She welcomed Moe to check her information, how she came to her calculation of excess deaths, which she said was available online and peer-reviewed by experts.

In her statement, Moriarty said the province should adopt post-mortem testing, like Manitoba and Quebec.

"Post-mortem testing is crucial for determining if people died of COVID-19."

As of Tuesday, Saskatchewan counted 977 total deaths, 540 fewer deaths than Manitoba.

Saskatchewan is third among provinces in deaths per 100,000 at 83, trailing Quebec 149, and Manitoba at 109.

Moriarty said Saskatchewan has done less testing, 25 per cent per capita lower than the rest of Canada. She said Saskatchewan's pre-Omicron test positivity was nearly two times higher than the rest of Canada.

"If people aren't tested and they died and if you're missing a lot more cases than the rest of the country, you're also missing more deaths."

She said leaders should "understand that estimates of cases and deaths are without a doubt under-estimates."

Moriarty goes on to say that Saskatchewan deaths reported on the Canadian Vital Statistics database are two times higher than those reported by the province.

In addition, she said Saskatchewan's death reporting up to October 2021 is only 70 per cent complete, compared to Quebec's 95 per cent. She said Saskatchewan's death reporting was last at 95 per cent in February 2020, before the pandemic hit the province.

She said the death reporting needs to be 95 per cent to estimate how many died of untimely deaths occurred.

"Excess mortality estimates for Saskatchewan are underestimates compared to many other provinces and will be for a long time until Saskatchewan death reporting catches up."

Researcher offers to help Sask. government

In an interview with CBC on Tuesday, Moriarty said she thinks Moe misunderstood her work, even though it was raised by the Opposition in the legislature.

"It is not egregious misinformation. This is a major report from the Royal Society of Canada peer-reviewed by some of Canada's leading epidemiologists and medical leaders."

Moriarty said it was important to push back on Moe's claim that the study compared to other misinformation shared through the pandemic.

She said factoring in the age of cases, expected mortality of different strains, and vaccination status, "Saskatchewan has not reported at least half of the deaths that would have been expected just by doing the math on reported cases."

For example, Saskatchewan has not reported a single death to the national mortality database since Oct. 1, 2021, she said.

And based on the pace of reporting, the true picture will not be known for two to three years, Moriarty said.

Lisa Xing/CBC
Lisa Xing/CBC

She said understanding the cause of death and not "minimizing" will help to prevent deaths and said despite Moe's comments she would help the Saskatchewan government.

"If they want to sit down and talk about it in all honesty and sincerity, I will absolutely do it."

Moriarty said she recently met with the Quebec government to discuss her research and how it could help the pandemic response.

She estimates that third doses could prevent 30 per cent or more future deaths.

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