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Wednesday 4 October 2023 Dublin: 13°C
Debunked: Figures on Covid-19 deaths and underlying conditions have been taken out of context
Covid sceptics are misinterpreting CSO data to make inaccurate claims.


A STATISTIC SHOWING that Covid-19 was the sole cause of 183 deaths in Ireland over the course of the pandemic has been widely shared on social media by individuals and groups who are sceptical about the public health methods used to tackle the spread of the virus.

A number of social media posts sharing the figure have racked up hundreds of shares on various platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and fringe sites such as Gettr.

Pages have shared news reports of the figure, suggesting that it has been hidden or under-reported by the “mainstream media”, to claim that the number of official deaths in Ireland during the pandemic is an exaggeration.

Others have claimed that the figure shows that Covid-19 was the true cause of death in “just 183 people” since the start of the pandemic.

Many of the posts have leaned on the figure of 183 deaths to claim that Covid measures such as social distancing, mandatory mask wearing and Ireland’s mass vaccination campaign were not necessary.

However, this figure – widely reported in Irish media, including by The Journal – has been taken out of context and the claims mis-represent the actual role of Covid in the deaths of thousands of people in Ireland.

Underlying cause-of-death

The 183 figure is a misconstruing of recently published data from the Central Statistics Office (CSO).

The most recent data from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) shows that there have been 7,758 Covid deaths in Ireland to date.

The CSO report showed that Covid was the underlying cause-of-death for 5,384 people between March 2020 and February 2022.

Underlying cause-of-death is a World Health Organization (WHO) criteria, used across the world, which is defined as “the disease or injury which initiated the train of events leading directly to death”.

Gerard Doolan, a statistician with the CSO, explained that the underlying cause-of-death is the condition that kick-starts a chain of events that leads to death.

“Let’s say Covid is an underlying cause-of-death. For a general example; someone contracts Covid, they in turn develop pneumonia, and in turn develop respiratory failure and then they die.

“Someone might say: ‘they died of respiratory failure’. But if you work backwards, they wouldn’t have died of respiratory failure had they not developed pneumonia, and they wouldn’t have developed pneumonia if they hadn’t contracted Covid-19.

“So in that case, Covid-19 was actually what started it all,” Doolan said.

As has been clarified since early in the pandemic, even when a person has a pre-existing condition – which could be anything from obesity to cancer – the coronavirus can still be an underlying cause of their death.

Ireland follows guidance from the WHO when counting Covid-19 deaths. The guidance states that Covid-19 “should be recorded on the medical certificate of cause of death for ALL decedents (deceased people) where the disease caused, or is assumed to have caused, or contributed to death”.

The guidelines also note that if the person who died was suffering from other conditions, these should also be included on the death certificate.

For example, in cases where Covid-19 caused pneumonia and fatal respiratory distress, both pneumonia and respiratory distress should be included on the certificate, along with the virus, to highlight the “chain of events” that led to the person’s death.

So where did the 183 claim come from?

The CSO data shows that four in five deaths from Covid had at least three medical conditions mentioned on the death record with 4.2 conditions being the average per person.

The vast majority (98%) of the accompanying conditions were diseases of the respiratory system and pneumonia – inflammation of the tissue in the lungs – was present in more than half of cases (56%).

A CSO statement on the data release – which clearly states that Covid was a factor in 5,384 deaths – includes the comment: “A total of 183 deaths (or 3.4%) reported Covid-19 as the single cause of death.”

Doolan explained that the statistics compiled by the CSO were derived from death certificates, which document the cause of death and illnesses that preceded death. The documents may also list other illnesses or conditions that a person had, which may have had nothing to do with their death (such as dementia or an amputated limb).

The 183 cases in the recent release denoted certificates where Covid was the only condition listed as a cause of death.

“Those 183 deaths have to be labelled as a death due to Covid or because of Covid, because it was the only medical condition that was given on the death certificate.

The 183 deaths are due to Covid statistically, because that was what was quoted on the death cert. There’s 5,201 other deaths that were due to Covid – but all of those 5,201 deaths had additional conditions listed on the death certificate.

“Of the 5,384 total deaths, 183 were where Covid was the only cause of death supplied on the death certificate,” he added.

In fact, Covid was actually mentioned on 6,255 death certificates, but it was only ruled as the underlying cause of the death in 5,384 cases. In these remaining 871 cases the person had Covid-19 when they died but they did not die due to the virus.

Public health measures

The Department of Health refuted claims from Covid sceptics that the public health measures introduced in Ireland (social distancing, mask wearing, mass vaccination) were not necessary.

A spokesperson for the department cited studies from the WHO, the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) and in The Lancet which all indicated that Ireland experienced both lower Covid-19 mortality and lower excess mortality during the pandemic than many other countries in Europe and globally.

The Hiqa analysis, published in April, estimated that there were 2,019 excess deaths (i.e. more deaths than is usually expected) in Ireland between 2 March 2020 and 28 November 2021.

The excess deaths occurred during a seven-week period from late March to mid-May 2020 and an eight-week period from early January to late February 2021.

These two distinct peaks in excess deaths broadly corresponded with the peaks observed for recorded Covid-19 deaths during periods when the virus was widespread in Ireland.

The Department of Health spokesperson said: “Contributing factors to lower excess mortality in Ireland may include, but are not limited to, timely and appropriate institution of population-level public health protective measures, effective communication and buy-in of individuals to non-pharmaceutical interventions, and the prioritised roll out, and uptake, of vaccination amongst those in the population most vulnerable to severe outcomes from Covid-19.”

‘Intentionally or unintentionally’

Asked about the CSO’s view of its data being misinterpreted, Doolan said the statistics office has a policy of giving as much context as possible in its publications – but it doesn’t engage with social media debates about the figures.

“We have seen some snippets where we’ve answered queries and they’ve given, let’s say, the first paragraph and they put that up on Twitter and say: ‘the CSO have said this’.

“But we’ve actually given additional information in paragraphs two and three that haven’t been added to the discussion. But, rather than getting involved in social media discussions, we prefer to try and put as complete information and as complete a story in the publications.

“We try and get the information out as opposed to commenting or are trying to challenge people who have taken CSO data, and, maybe intentionally or unintentionally, not given the full story to it – which may lead to some sort of a misleading understanding for people or readers on Twitter in those discussions,” Doolan said.

Verdict: False

The statistic that Covid-19 was the sole cause of 183 deaths in Ireland is misleading because it is missing context. It was also falsely claimed that the coronavirus disease caused just 183 deaths in Ireland over the course of the pandemic.

The 183 figure represents the amount of death certificates where Covid-19 was the only listed condition. Covid-19 was found to be the underlying cause of 5,384 deaths in Ireland from March 2020 to February 2022.’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here