Provisional death counts and excess mortality, January 2020 to September 2021
The emergence of COVID-19 variants of concern and the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in Canada will continue to influence the course of the pandemic in Canada and worldwide. Statistics Canada will provide timely information on a regular basis on excess deaths, causes of death and comorbidities as it becomes available.
To understand both the direct and indirect consequences of the pandemic, it is important to measure excess mortality, which occurs when there are more deaths than expected in a given period. It should be noted that, even without a pandemic, there is always some year-to-year variation in the number of people who die in a given week. This means that the number of expected deaths should fall within a certain range of values. There is evidence of excess mortality when weekly deaths are consistently higher than the expected number, but especially when they exceed the range of what is expected over several consecutive weeks.
From March 2020 to the beginning of September 2021, there were an estimated 20,994 excess deaths in Canada, or 5.0% more deaths than what would be expected were there no pandemic, after accounting for changes in the population, such as aging. Over this same period, 26,065 deaths were directly attributed to COVID-19.
While COVID-19 claimed the lives of 5,930 Canadians from the beginning of February 2021 to the beginning of September 2021, significant excess mortality was not observed nationally during this time. However, some provinces, including Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia, experienced periods of excess mortality, generally coinciding with a higher number of deaths attributable to COVID-19 over the same period.
In addition, British Columbia and Alberta saw periods of higher-than-expected mortality at the end of June 2021 and into July, when a heat wave gripped the two provinces. Excess mortality was also observed in the two westernmost provinces in August and September.
While the sharp increase in deaths in British Columbia associated with the heat wave affected those aged 40 years and older, the more recent increase in the number of deaths appears to be driven by those under 40, specifically males. There were 145 (67%) more deaths than expected among males under the age of 40 through the months of August and September.
Similarly, in Alberta, significant excess mortality was observed among those under the age of 40 in August and September. Unlike in British Columbia, greater-than-expected mortality was observed in both males and females in this age group. In fact, males aged 0 to 39 years in Alberta have experienced many weeks of significant excess mortality since the middle of May 2020.
The coroner's or medical examiner's service in each province has reported record number of deaths attributed to drug overdoses in 2020, and the evidence thus far suggests that this number could be surpassed in 2021.
As part of Statistics Canada's commitment to providing timely and relevant information on COVID-19 and its impact on Canadians, a new updated provisional dataset from the Canadian Vital Statistics Death Database, covering the period from January 2020 to September 2021, was released today. Updates were also made to the provisional death estimates, which have been adjusted, where possible, to account for the incomplete nature of the counts. The provisional estimates will continue to be revised in future releases, as more information is reported by provincial and territorial vital statistics agencies, and as estimation methods continue to be enhanced.
Users are advised to exercise caution when using these provisional datasets. The data are provisional because they do not reflect all the deaths that occurred over that period. Certain deaths investigated by coroners or medical examiners often require lengthy investigations. As a result, it can take longer to report cause-of-death information for investigated deaths to Statistics Canada. Because of these reporting delays, the provisional data would underrepresent the true number of deaths attributed to certain causes, including suicides, during that period. More comprehensive data on causes of death will be available with the annual release of preliminary data covering the 2020 reference year, scheduled for January 24, 2022.
Note to readers
The data released today are provisional, as they are not based on all the deaths that occurred during the reference period because of reporting delays, and because they do not include Yukon. Provisional death counts are based on what is reported to Statistics Canada by provincial and territorial vital statistics registries. Provisional death estimates have been adjusted to account for incomplete data, where possible. The numbers of excess deaths discussed in this analysis refer to provisional estimates. Information on the methods used can be found in the "Definitions, data sources and methods" section of the Canadian Vital Statistics Death Database.
The provisional death counts and estimates may not match figures from other sources, such as media reports, or counts and estimates from provincial and territorial health authorities and other agencies.
There are a number of ways to measure excess mortality, and each has its strengths and weaknesses. There are also a number of challenges with measuring excess mortality, most importantly properly estimating the number of expected deaths that would occur in a non-COVID-19 context as a basis for comparison with current death counts. Significant variations may be observed from year to year in the annual death counts, particularly in the least-populated provinces and the territories. Moreover, yearly death counts may be affected by changes in the composition of the population, specifically in regard to age, and changes in mortality rates (e.g., reduced mortality). In the Canadian context, with an aging and growing population, the number of deaths has been steadily increasing in recent years. Therefore, a higher number of deaths in 2020 and 2021 would be expected regardless of COVID-19.
A second challenge is the difficulty of collecting timely death counts. Taking these considerations into account, the method chosen by Statistics Canada to estimate expected deaths—which has also been adopted by organizations in several other countries, including the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—is adapted from an infectious disease detection algorithm that has been largely utilized in the context of mortality surveillance in recent years.
The tabulation of causes of death is based on the underlying cause of death, which is defined by the World Health Organization as the disease or injury that initiated the train of events leading directly to death, or as the circumstances of the accident or violence that produced the fatal injury. The underlying cause of death is selected from the causes and conditions listed on the medical certificate of cause of death completed by a medical professional, medical examiner or coroner. More information on causes of death, including the certification and classification of COVID-19 deaths, can be found in the study "COVID-19 death comorbidities in Canada."
More information on excess mortality during the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada is available in the article "Excess mortality in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic."
References to the period from March 2020 to the beginning of September 2021 refer to the period from the week ending March 28, 2020, to the week ending September 11, 2021.
References to the period from the beginning of February 2021 to the beginning of September 2021 refer to the period from the week ending February 6, 2021, to the week ending September 11, 2021.
The portal Life expectancy and deaths statistics, presenting information related to death in Canada, was updated today. It features a Provisional deaths and excess mortality in Canada dashboard, which brings recent insights into the trends in excess mortality together with interactive data visualization tools.
For more information, or to enquire about the concepts, methods or data quality of this release, contact us (toll-free 1-800-263-1136; 514-283-8300; email@example.com) or Media Relations (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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