Statistics Canada has released 10 months of death data for N.S. Here's why it matters

Statistics Canada's excess mortality tracker updated earlier this week and includes almost 10 months of new data for Nova Scotia. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
Statistics Canada's excess mortality tracker updated earlier this week and includes almost 10 months of new data for Nova Scotia. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)

The recent release of almost 10 months of death data for Nova Scotia covering October 2021 to August 2022 is shedding light on COVID-19 deaths in the province, a researcher says.

Nova Scotia has lagged behind most other provinces in providing the data to Statistics Canada, but the latest excess mortality update from Statistics Canada on Thursday included a mass of new numbers for Nova Scotia.

The federal agency uses death data to track excess mortality — the actual number of deaths above what is expected.

"I think that it's really crucial for decision-makers to see these data, as well as for people to see these data," said infectious diseases researcher Tara Moriarty, who is based at the University of Toronto.

The data, which is broken down into weekly periods, shows consistent periods of positive excessive mortality for the latest time period.

"That means that we have steady excess mortality, but we're not really ever dipping," said Moriarty. "So, the fact that we don't see negatives — or very few of them — we're running kind of at a constant state of excess mortality."

Moriarty said this is a big departure from the early days of the pandemic in Nova Scotia, when strong public health restrictions meant fewer people were dying than expected.

Submitted by Tara Moriarty
Submitted by Tara Moriarty

There can be many causes of excess mortality, said Moriarty.

Besides the COVID-19 epidemic, it may signal problems with toxic drugs, or problems accessing health care. But excess mortality is a cue for authorities to take action, she said.

"Is there something else also going on that we should be aware of and that we need to deal with?" said Moriarty.

She said that in Quebec, which has robust reporting of COVID-19 cases and deaths, excess mortality statistics resemble the official COVID-19 death numbers.

Moriarty is also the lead for the COVID-19 Resources Canada project, which does modelling to help members of the public better understand the COVID-19 situation. It receives funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada for its work.

Omicron deaths

The deadliest wave of the pandemic in Nova Scotia began with the arrival of the Omicron variant, with 589 of the reported 701 deaths happening since then.

Moriarty notes the Statistics Canada data also shows significant excess mortality from September 2021 to November 2021.

While the official COVID-19 death count in Nova Scotia increased by 16 deaths during this time (from 94 to 110), Statistics Canada pegs Nova Scotia's excess mortality as 109 deaths.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press
Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Moriarty isn't surprised by this.

"Across the country we saw quite a bad wave of mortality and excess mortality associated with [the] Delta [variant] that continued on into Omicron," she said.

Moriarty has long cautioned that the province is underreporting COVID-19 death counts.

She would like to see the province speed up the information it provides to Statistics Canada, as well as provide more information to the public "so that people really do get a true sense of the risk and what's happening, instead of it sort of being all quiet, all the time."

Nova Scotia has suspended holding regular COVID-19 briefings. It updates its COVID-19 dashboard weekly and releases a monthly epidemiologic report.

CBC News has requested additional information from the province and will update the story once a response is received.