Deaths from heart disease, cerebrovascular disease and diabetes were also 8-17% higher than expected.
Cutter said those three causes of death were also related to COVID. “Studies show that there is a high risk for people with COVID, and that’s where we see it,” she said, adding that the spike in deaths from heart disease was significant.
She said periods of high COVID-related deaths had also corresponded to excess non-COVID deaths.
“Part of the explanation could be that people are going to hospitals and cannot access treatments because hospitals are full of COVID patients. At the peaks of COVID, ambulance and ER wait times are high. We believe this is one of the factors as to why there are more non-COVID related deaths,” Cutter said.
“The other aspect of people not getting medical treatment could be that they didn’t get the treatment they needed or the testing they should have had in 2020 and 2021, so they have poorer health outcomes that have been slow to emerge.”
The analysis revealed that COVID-19, its long-term consequences and its interaction with other health conditions such as heart disease had the greatest impact on excess mortality figures last year, as did delays in emergency care.
Pressures on health, hospital and elderly care systems during the pandemic, which led to the surge of ambulances and blockages of beds, meant that some people did not get help in time they needed or avoided seeking care, and this hypothesis was supported by an increase in non-COVID deaths during COVID peaks.
There was a moderate effect of deaths from respiratory illnesses below expectations in previous years of the pandemic, meaning that people who might otherwise have died earlier were now succumbing to their underlying illnesses.
There was also evidence that delays in seeking routine care – for reasons such as fear and lack of opportunity – led to missed opportunities to diagnose and treat non-COVID illnesses, which could be a factor in increasing deaths from cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
The analysis found that the impact of pandemic-influenced lifestyle changes, such as drinking more or exercising less, was small, while the impact of vaccine-related deaths was negligible.
Actuaries Institute chief executive Elayne Grace said the figures were “a stark reminder of the massive impact COVID-19 has had across Australia”.
“Although people have largely continued with their lives beyond lockdowns and border closures, the fact is that COVID-19 remains a key contributor to the majority of excess mortality,” she said.
The institute’s COVID-19 Mortality Task Force relied on data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics to make its calculations, but it uses a different methodology than the bureau, which uses an average of deaths from years previous ones to make their estimates.
The Actuaries Institute’s baseline of expected deaths takes into account demographic changes, including the aging of the population, and therefore increases each year. It also discounts COVID, which means its baseline estimates assume no pandemic. This means that its excess death figures are lower, but more accurate, than the ABS report.
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