FUREY: Alberta offers even more data on COVID-19 deaths

Alberta continues to offer even more nuanced data about persons who have died from COVID-19 and the underlying conditions they were facing.

The other week, the province revealed that over three quarters of Albertans who had died were also grappling “with 3 or more conditions”. As of last update, only 11 persons – or 2.3% of total deaths in Alberta – had died with zero underlying conditions, or comorbidities.

These conditions range from common ones such as diabetes and hypertension to severe ones including cancer, dementia and liver cirrhosis.

While other provinces do not report this level of detail, a recent StatsCan report revealed these numbers to be fairly consistent throughout the country.

Now, Alberta Health Services has also provided media with information about comorbidities for each specific death announced.

On Wednesday, when nine new deaths were announced, the tally was as follows: Woman in her 90s, unknown; Male 90s, unknown; Female 50s, had comorbidities; Female 80s, had comorbidities; Female 90s, no comorbidities; Male 80s, unknown; Male 80s, unknown; Male 80s, had comorbidities; Male 70s, had comorbidities. Only the last two individuals were not linked to an outbreak at a retirement / care facility.

The value of this sort of data lies in being able to better identify and protect the persons most at risk of COVID-19 while also finding ways to ease the potentially damaging restrictions on low-risk persons, medical experts have previously told the Sun.

Dr. Prabhat Ja, an epidemiologist at St. Michael’s Hospital and expert in mortality data, says it’s “useful information” and that all of the statistics in Canada should be released.

Ja told the Sun that while comorbidity data helps sort through who is at higher risk, he notes that comorbidities are a less significant risk factor compared to whether or not the person was living in a long-term care (LTCs) facility or not, a much greater indicator of risk given that the overwhelming majority of COVID deaths in Canada were in LTCs.

“When the post-mortem of all COVID responses will be done in the future, governments who got out data fast will come across better,” Ja predicts.

But the data also provokes some challenging conversations.

“It’s a very delicate question, nobody wishes ill on anybody but what we’re having trouble discussing is at what point is someone really at the end of their natural life and it could have been COVID or influenza or another virus or they died of aspiration-related issues like pneumonia,” says Dr. Martha Fulford, a professor at McMaster University and infectious diseases physician at Hamilton Health Sciences.

“Sometimes the real reason is that it’s the natural end of a life and we can’t avoid this. Nobody wants to have a premature death, but how many of these deaths were truly premature deaths,” asks Fulford. “I in no way think we should have the doors wide open and our hospitals overwhelmed, but I also think there’s no context about COVID.”

Dr. Neil Rau, an infectious diseases specialist and medical microbiologist based out of Oakville, Ont., says the other added benefit of this data is that it can help policymakers determine who should be closer to the front of the line for vaccines. “You’re not going to have a vaccine available for every person on day one,” says Rau.

“People can have a comorbidity and have a very good quality life,” adds Rau. “But I think it’s important to be honest with people about the risk stratification of this disease.”

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