New Zealand has just recorded its highest death count in a 12-month period - driven by the Covid pandemic and our ageing population.
Statistics New Zealand today released its year-on-year update on births and deaths between September 2021 and September 2022.
It showed a “sharp” 10 per cent increase in the mortality rate, with 38,052 registered deaths up from 34,578 in the previous 12 months.
Of these, 5 per cent - or 2025 deaths - were attributed to Covid, according to the Ministry of Health data.
Factors in the marked rise include the highly contagious Omicron variant sweeping through New Zealand at the start of this year, taking a deadly toll on our most senior citizens alongside our ageing population.
This year’s record tally follows an earlier period in the pandemic when the Government’s strict border control measures saw an absence of seasonal respiratory illnesses circulating in the community in 2020.
Today’s data aligns with the arrival of the Delta variant in New Zealand, which saw a four-month-long lockdown of northern regions and a nationwide vaccination campaign to protect against the virus.
Prior to October 2021, there had been 29 deaths attributed to Covid-19 since the pandemic started in 2020.
By the end of the Delta outbreak, and before Omicron had entered the community in February this year, Ministry of Health data showed 51 deaths were attributed to the virus.
That number started swelling in March once the Omicron outbreak took hold throughout New Zealand.
Today’s numbers show that, despite the outbreak, the age of those dying in 2022 mirrored the mortality of those in pre-Covid 2019 other than a small and expected increase in our very eldest.
Stats NZ population estimates and projections team insights analyst Rebekah Hennessey said they always expected to see an increase in deaths but the impact of the pandemic and other winter illnesses had caused a jump.
“New Zealand has an ageing population and so we’re having reasonable increases in the number of people reaching those older ages where people are more likely to die,” said Hennessey.
“However, it has been a bigger increase than just the impact of the ageing population.
“The impact of Covid and other winter illnesses that have gone around have had an impact on the number of deaths and caused that jump.”
Hennessey said the increase in deaths both from Covid and other causes mostly affected people aged 85-plus.
And Hennessey said that would continue for the foreseeable future.
“In the long term, deaths are projected to keep increasing but it’s a result of the ageing population and not pandemics.
“The sharp increase that we’ve seen recently is not what we would expect but we do expect the number of deaths to keep increasing.”
Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker said with Omicron circulating we had added an important new cause of death which had leapfrogged to fourth place behind heart disease, strokes and common cancers. He warned that it would likely remain a major killer for the foreseeable future.
While this year’s Covid death rate was around ten times greater than the road toll, he said had the infection not arrived to a highly-vaccinated population the mortality rate would have been easily ten-fold higher.
”That’s the good news. The bad news is that at the moment it’s an additional cause of death in New Zealand to what we had before that’s a real increase.”
He said uncertainty remained around whether the deaths would continue to be as high with questions about Covid’s impact in future years.
“It’s going to be a major cause of death for the foreseeable future, potentially it might be less than this year.
”We know influenza kills about 500 people every year in New Zealand and it’s been our leading cause of death from an infectious disease.
”Now we have Covid which is this year roughly five times as many deaths. It’s put over 20,000 people in hospital - flu typically puts about 2,500 people in hospital every year - so at the moment it’s about five times the impact of flu in New Zealand.”
Baker said Long Covid was looking at being potentially the largest health impact from the pandemic. He called on the Government and Ministry of Health for a clear strategy to manage Covid.
”We have a lot of world-class tools but we don’t have a very clear indication of what our goal is.”
Nearly three years on it was not clear whether the aim was to limit infections or simply limit the consequences of infections, with an absence of guidelines.
As a result, the public remained confused about boosters, antivirals, self-isolation and ventilation.
”We’ve got all these things there but all we’re measuring is boosters and we know they’re quite low so we’re not seeing all of the protective measures that could be reducing that mortality burden.”
The high 12-month death rate comes as New Zealand faces a third Omicron wave, with health officials warning rates of infection could see up to 11,000 new cases a day and up to 100 people in hospital in coming months.
Cases in recent days have topped 4000 and deputy director general of health Dr Andrew Old warned of an uncertain outlook for summer as a cocktail of new variants circulated across the country.
He advised people to get booster shots before going on holiday and to stay home if people were ill.
While the death rate rose sharply, the number of live births fell from 59,382 to 58,749 in the 12-month period, with the number of births to unmarried parents exceeding births to married parents for the first time.
Fertility rates also fell, dropping to 1.65 births per woman from 1.66.