Does spike in coronavirus deaths signal a real trend? Watch and see, expert says

Canada’s deaths from the novel coronavirus spiked dramatically Thursday to 183, roughly three times the total the country saw as recently as Monday.

The numbers were released Thursday evening by Health Canada.

The bulk of the newly reported deaths — 143 of them — came from Quebec. Nearly all the rest were in Ontario.

However, Quebec Premier Francois Legault said most of the newly recorded deaths had not occurred over the last day but were added following a change in data collection methods.

While daily deaths have increased steadily this week, University of Toronto epidemiologist Ashleigh Tuite says we shouldn’t make too much of the toll reported Thursday unless it’s repeated.

“I think, probably, I would discount the data point from yesterday and see what happens today,” she says.

(Quebec data has spiked in this way before. In March, numbers on positive tests increased sharply after the province changed its rules on how tests were counted.)

Dr. Theresa Tam, the country’s chief public health officer, said Thursday that more than 90 per cent of the patients confirmed to have died from the virus are over the age of 60 and half of them lived in long-term care homes.

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While the overall curve of new confirmed COVID-19 cases is “bending,” the proportion of outbreaks in long-term care homes has led to a higher death rate than expected, Canada’s top doctor said.

However, seniors are not the only vulnerable group, she said, noting more must be done to help people experiencing homelessness and precarious housing — conditions that also make it difficult to maintain physical distancing and handwashing protocols.

“Without immediate action, there will be more outbreaks and avoidable deaths with broader societal and public health implications… We cannot crush this curve unless and until everyone is looked after,” she said.

Tuite says there have come to be two different epidemics: one in long-term care homes and the other everywhere else.

“If these are deaths that are not necessarily happening because of community transmission, but they are happening because of outbreaks in long-term care homes, on the one hand, it suggests that what we are doing generally in terms of the public health measures is working, but it also suggests that we need to double down on trying to control what’s happening in the long-term care homes,” she says.

On a per-capita basis, Thursday’s total gives Canada about two deaths for every three in the United States, or about half the number in the U.K. (There are concerns that not all coronavirus-related deaths in Britain are being counted, however.)

Taking an average of Canadian deaths over the last seven days (97) paints a more reassuring picture: per capita, we have one death for every four in the U.K., or one for every three in the U.S.

“The people who are most vulnerable are the people living in long-term care homes,” Tuite says. “We know that the case fatality rate in that population is really high.”

As well, deaths that are happening now reflect infections that happened three or four weeks ago. Deaths are an important measure, but not a very up-to-date one.

“We know that deaths are lagging, so we’re going to continue to see deaths even when case numbers are going down because it takes time for people to get sick and die,” she says.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Ottawa would discuss additional supports for provinces in tackling outbreaks in long-term care homes, including a request by Quebec for military relief.

“I think one of the things we’ve seen over the past number of weeks is a far more severe impact on a number of seniors residences and long-term care centres than we had certainly hoped for or more than we feared,” he told reporters.

“It is impossible to imagine the anguish families and, indeed, our elders are going through in this situation — there is just so much fear, so much uncertainty,” he said.

— With files from the Canadian Press

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