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Provisional death counts and excess mortality, January 2020 to November 2021

Released: 2022-02-10

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 November 2021, was released today. The Omicron variant was detected in Canada at the end of November 2021. Subsequently, many provinces and territories observed an increase in COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and admissions to intensive care units.

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.

Based on the provisional data released today, an estimated 26,248 excess deaths were reported in Canada from March 2020 to the middle of October 2021—5.8% 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, 27,455 deaths occurred that were directly attributed to COVID-19.

At a time when the Delta variant was more prevalent, and prior to the emergence of the Omicron variant, Canada experienced a period of significant excess deaths from mid-August 2021 to the end of September 2021, which coincided with a period of increased COVID-19 deaths.

British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan experience significant excess deaths in fall 2021

The period of excess mortality at the national level, from mid-August 2021 to the end of September 2021, was largely driven by trends in Canada's westernmost provinces. British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan experienced an increase in COVID-19 deaths during this period.

Both British Columbia and Alberta observed periods of significant excess mortality from mid-August to the end of November 2021. British Columbia saw an excess of 2,439 deaths, or 22.6% more than expected. In Alberta, there were 1,708 excess deaths, resulting in 21.8% more deaths than expected.

The province of Saskatchewan reported 190 excess deaths between mid-September and early October 2021, nearly 26% higher than expected.

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 the causes of death for 2020 were published on January 24, 2022.

Statistics Canada will continue to update, on a regular basis, more recent data on deaths, causes of death and comorbidities as these data become available, in order to keep Canadians informed as the pandemic continues.

  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, in regard to age more particularly, 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 and so 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 mid-October 2021 refer to the period from the week ending March 28, 2020, to the week ending October 16, 2021.

References to the period from mid-August 2021 to the end of September 2021 refer to the period from the week ending August 21, 2021, to the week ending September 25, 2021.

References to the period from mid-August 2021 to the end of November 2021 refer to the period from the week ending August 21, 2021, to the week ending November 27, 2021.

References to the period from mid-September 2021 to early October 2021 refer to the period from the week ending September 18, 2021, to the week ending October 9, 2021.

Products

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.

Contact information

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; infostats@statcan.gc.ca) or Media Relations (statcan.mediahotline-ligneinfomedias.statcan@statcan.gc.ca).

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