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COVID deaths may be higher than official toll: actuaries

Australia’s actual coronavirus death toll from the first wave of the pandemic may be higher than official figures, according to a new paper from the Actuaries Institute.

The paper, based on the institute’s analysis of certified deaths compiled by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, found an above-normal jump in deaths from pneumonia, stroke and diabetes in March and April. The two months marked the first wave of COVID-19 in the country.

Deaths from dementia during the two months were also higher than usual, the paper said.

The institute believes the under-counting of COVID deaths could be because many were not tested for the virus. Testing for the illness at that time was not widespread.

“While we cannot be definitive, we expect that more people probably died because of COVID-19 during the first wave of cases in March and April than was reported at the time,” the paper said.

“Some of the extra deaths were probably reported as pneumonia, diabetes and possibly stroke, as deaths from these causes were higher than expected during that period and all of these causes of death are related to COVID-19 in some way.

“It has been common around the world for some COVID-19 deaths not to have been counted in official statistics, particularly in the first wave when testing resources were scarce.”

The paper says in the week ending March 24, the number of deaths from all causes exceeded normal trends by about 100. In the last week of March and first seven days of April, there were about 200 more deaths than usual.

Up until March 17 deaths from influenza and pneumonia were within a reasonable range of predicted numbers but there was a noticeable spike thereafter.

“We understand that COVID-19 often presents as similar to pneumonia, so perhaps some ‘pneumonia’ deaths were undetected COVID-19 deaths?” the paper said.

As of today, government data puts Australia's COVID death toll at 832.

Jennifer Lang, Convener of the institute’s COVID-19 Working Group, says the classification of deaths as COVID-19 or non-COVID deaths would not have affected general or life insurers.

“Most insurance policies do not distinguish between cause of death, particularly non-accidental death,” Ms Lang told today.

“Whether they were COVID-19 deaths or not, they would still be counted as deaths and insurers would still pay out if there was a policy.”

She says the paper’s findings have “helped us better understand the full impact of the first wave of COVID-19”.

“Actuaries are very good at looking at large data sets to get an evidence-based finding. In this case… we hope to understand likely impacts from further waves of COVID-19.”