Covid now one of NZ’s biggest killers

Covid-19 has been directly responsible for one in seven recent deaths – and has already claimed five times as many lives as those lost in car accidents last year.

But even after New Zealand recently saw its deadliest week of the pandemic, a top epidemiologist fears Kiwis are growing indifferent.

A New Zealand Herald analysis showed that, in the week ending July 17 – around the time this second Omicron wave was peaking – 836 people died across New Zealand.

Of those deaths, 120 – nearly 15 percent – were directly attributed to Covid-19.

Nearly one in five died within 28 days of being reported as a Covid-19 case.

“For the first time, Covid-19 has probably become the leading cause of death in New Zealand,” Otago University epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker said.

“Fifteen percent of people dying from Covid-19 is about the same proportion of people who die from ischaemic heart disease, which is currently our single biggest killer.

“It’s also twice the number dying from stroke, which has long been number two.”

He said it was paradoxical that, at a point we’re seeing the highest mortality impact of this pandemic so far, public attention appeared to have dropped to low levels.

Consumer NZ’s Sentiment Tracker showed Covid-19 was an issue that just a quarter of respondents now found to be most concerning – well behind housing and the cost of living.

“Of course, we all want to move on from it – but while we might be finished with the pandemic, the pandemic hasn’t finished with us.”

According to newly-updated Ministry of Health data, most of the virus-related deaths it has reported have been confirmed to be wholly or partially attributed to Covid-19.

As of Friday, some 1638 of a total 2423 reported deaths had been formally attributed to Covid-19.

In two-thirds of those cases, the virus was listed as the underlying cause.

“And it’s important to remember that some people dying because of Covid-19 will not be counted because they did not have a typical illness and were not tested before they died,” Baker said.

And as health experts have constantly warned throughout the pandemic, that burden hasn’t been falling equally across society.

So far, Māori and Pacific people have accounted for more than a third of hospitalisations with Covid-19 – and nearly two in 10 deaths where the virus was the underlying cause.

Another clear risk factor in hospitalisation and deaths remained age.

All but 46 of those who’d died from the virus were older than 60 – and two thirds of deaths were recorded among people older than 80.

Baker has already aired concerns that average life expectancy – a measure that New Zealand was only one of three countries to improve over the first two years of the pandemic – could fall significantly because of Covid-19.

At the same time, our excess mortality has increased this year and is now running at 10 percent above normal and likely to continue while we report daily Covid-19 deaths in the double digits.

“This is what we’ve been seeing throughout autumn and winter – but we know this virus is able to spread in summer very easily,” Baker said.

In response to the country’s climbing death rates, officials have pointed out New Zealand’s cumulative Covid-19 death rate over the pandemic – 316 per million of population as at August 4 – relatively low.

That still compared well with other countries, including the UK and US, with 2753 and 3062 deaths per million of population respectively.

However, that low cumulative mortality came from the first two years of the pandemic when its elimination strategy largely kept the virus out while we vaccinated the nation, Baker said.

Covid-19 modeller Professor Michael Plank said that, while death rates would come down as this Omicron wave subsided, it was likely the country would record 2000 deaths by year’s end.

That would be more than six times the number of Kiwis killed on our roads last year – and also greater than the annual toll of lung cancer.

Plank expected Covid-19 to remain a “significant contributor to overall mortality”.

“We are in a difficult situation in the sense that this is a really difficult virus to control: it’s now widespread throughout the community, it’s very transmissible and it’s not going to go away.

“While public measures like masks will help reduce that burden, it’s not going to eliminate it altogether.”

For those most vulnerable Kiwis, being boosted remained crucial, Plank said.

“It’s much, much better to get your immunity from a vaccine than from getting infected.”

Baker said he was concerned about “an element of fatalism” about the virus.

“I refute the view that everyone will get it and that we should just accept the inevitable,” Baker said.

“The evidence is strong that you can and should avoid getting infected and reinfected with this virus, as each infection carries a risk of serious illness and Long Covid.

“We also know that infection can be controlled. New Zealand hospitals for example have largely eliminated transmission within their workplaces by following simple infection control principles of universal masking and improved ventilation.

“The same approach can be applied in workplaces, schools, and other settings.

“We will never stop every infection, but we can prevent most of them, and turn down the number of cases, hospitalisations, deaths and people getting long Covid.”

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