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Debunked: It's false to claim Irish and Italian death tolls are 'miscalculated' and 'inflated' by up to 90%

Variations of the same post have been widely shared on Facebook.

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A WIDELY SHARED post on Facebook claims that death tolls in Ireland, England and Italy are “miscalculated” and “inflated”. 

The post, which doesn’t provide a source for any of its claims, falsely states that Italy’s death toll from Covid-19 was miscalculated by 90% and that Tánaiste Leo Varadkar confirmed Ireland’s statistics are inflated. 

The post, copied and shared by several Facebook users, reads:

“Italy has just announced that they miscalculated Covid death by 90%. England just lowered theirs by 5,000 so far. Leo also confirmed ours are totally inflated. Hello!”

psot

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, many claims have speculated about coronavirus data and have sought to question the severity of the disease. Likewise, this post appears to do the same by stating that the death toll from Covid-19 is actually much lower in reality than is being indicated by official figures.

The post is correct however that England lowered their official count by some 5,000, but that was due to a change in its classification of deaths related to the coronavirus – more on that below. 

Italy and UK figures

Firstly, the claim that Italy announced it miscalculated coronavirus death by 90% is false. 

There have been no such statements made recently by Italian authorities. It is likely this comes from a widely debunked claim made by an Italian politician back in April.

In a speech to parliament, Vittorio Sgarbi asserted that 96.3% of Covid-19 deaths in his country were actually from other causes – this was previously debunked by Full Fact.

Its fact-checkers say the source of Sgarbi’s claim was from a report by the Istituto Superiore di Sanità (Higher Institute of Health) published on 20 April. 

It found that of 21,551 Italians who had died with Covid-19, just 3.7% had no co-pre-existing conditions.

The factcheckers noted that this means that 96.3% of the people who had died in Italy after testing positive for Covid-19 had also suffered from at least one condition.

It does not mean that the virus did not cause their death, as claimed by Sgarbi. 

This conclusion is in line with the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guidelines on the classification of deaths related to the coronavirus, which provides some clarity in situations involving those complicated cases.

According to those guidelines, a death due to Covid-19 is defined as:
a death resulting from a clinically compatible illness, in a probable or confirmed Covid-19 case, unless there is a clear alternative cause of death that cannot be related to Covid disease.

The WHO definition also says that where there is a period of complete recovery from Covid-19, a person’s death should not be attributed to the coronavirus.

Importantly, the organisation also says that deaths due to Covid-19 should not be attributed to another disease (such as cancer), but should be counted independently of any pre-existing condition that may have triggered a severe course of the virus.

That means that deaths from Covid-19 should be counted in those complicated cases, even when a person may have had another illness or chronic condition.

Despite these guidelines, countries don’t all count deaths in the same way, so data isn’t consistent at an international level.

And to make things more complicated, countries can update their methods for counting. This is why the claim that the UK lowered its death rate by 5,000 is true. 

Earlier this month, the British government changed how it compiles statistics on deaths from coronavirus in England, having previously counted people who had tested positive for the virus, regardless of the cause of death.

Previously, there was no cut-off time to record deaths after a positive test. However, a new counting method was brought in on 12 August to bring England’s measures in line with other UK nations.

UK authorities now only include deaths that occurred within 28 days of a positive Covid-19 test result.

The introduction of the new methodology for counting deaths meant the total number of people in the UK who died from Covid-19 came down from 46,706 to 41,329 - a reduction of 12%.

Irish numbers 

Lastly, the posts claim that Tánaiste Leo Varadkar confirmed that Ireland’s death toll was “totally inflated”. 

It is likely the claim is referencing a tweet Varadkar sent on 3 July linking to an RTÉ article on Ireland’s excess deaths. 

The article refers to a report from the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) which found that there had been a 13% increase in deaths in Ireland between March and June but that Covid-19 deaths may have been overestimated.

His tweet reads: 

“Interesting but not a surprise. In Ireland we counted all deaths, in all settings, suspected cases even when no lab test was done, and included people with underlying terminal illnesses who died with Covid but not of it.

“This was right approach but skewed the numbers. Priority is to save lives not look good in league tables.”

Leo

The Hiqa report in question examined the number of excess deaths that occurred over a three-month period during the Covid-19 pandemic – with excess deaths referring to the number of deaths over what would normally be expected for that time of year.

The document, which can be read here, assessed the number of deaths that occurred in Ireland from 11 March to 16 June, relative to the expected number of deaths, using data from the death notices website RIP.ie.

It found that the official number of Covid-19 deaths reported may be an overestimate – something Varadkar said was “not a surprise” given how deaths related to the virus are counted. There were about 1,100 to 1,200 more deaths than would be expected based on historical patterns – a 13% increase between 11 March and 16 June, the report notes.

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Excess deaths peaked by 33% over a six-week period from 25 March to 5 May. During this period, there was an increase of 1,200 deaths from expected figures, with 1,332 Covid-19-related deaths officially reported.

Hiqa found that the official number of reported Covid-19 deaths likely “overestimates the true burden of excess deaths caused by the virus”.

The report states that this could be due to the inclusion within official figures of people who were infected with the virus at the time of death whose cause of death may have been predominantly due to other factors.

However, speaking on the RTÉ’s News at One at the time of the report’s publication, Hiqa’s Chief Scientist, Dr Conor Teljeur, explained the official death toll at the time of 1,709 was likely “an accurate estimate”.

“It may be a slight overestimate, but it is likely to be an accurate estimate. Excess mortality, it has a limitation that doesn’t necessarily fully state the burden of Covid-19 on mortality.

“So excess mortality is trying to contrast the number of deaths that were observed with the number that were expected. And as some of these people were expected to have died during that period, then they don’t count towards the excess mortality.

“But the reality is, they did die because of Covid-19, and it therefore contributes to the overall mortality and we need to count that correctly.”

The number of Covid-19 deaths confirmed by the Department of Health every day are deaths “related to” the virus and other factors may have played a role in the person’s death. You can read exactly how Covid-19 deaths are counted in Ireland here

Latest data from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, which is published daily, breaks down deaths until 25 August. 

Of 1,777 deaths, 1,519 were among confirmed cases, while 99 were among probable cases. It records 159 deaths among possible cases. 

It notes that 1,677 deaths were among people with “underlying clinical conditions”, or 94.37%.  The median age of deaths is 84, while the mean age is 82. 

                                                                  ********

There is a lot of false news and scaremongering being spread in Ireland at the moment about coronavirus. Here are some practical ways for you to assess whether the messages that you’re seeing – especially on WhatsApp – are true or not. 

STOP, THINK AND CHECK 

Look at where it’s coming from. Is it someone you know? Do they have a source for the information (e.g. the HSE website) or are they just saying that the information comes from someone they know? A lot of the false news being spread right now is from people claiming that messages from ‘a friend’ of theirs. Have a look yourself – do a quick Google search and see if the information is being reported elsewhere. 

Secondly, get the whole story, not just a headline. A lot of these messages have got vague information (“all the doctors at this hospital are panicking”) and don’t mention specific details. This is often – but not always a sign – that it may not be accurate. 

Finally, see how you feel after reading it. A lot of these false messages are designed to make people feel panicked. They’re deliberately manipulating your feelings to make you more likely to share it. If you feel panicked after reading something, check it out and see if it really is true.

TheJournal.ie’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

Have you gotten a message on WhatsApp or Facebook or Twitter about coronavirus that you’re not sure about and want us to check it out? Message or mail us and we’ll look into debunking it. WhatsApp: 085 221 4696 or Email: answers@thejournal.ie

About the author:

Adam Daly

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