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Debunked: A comparison of deaths between January and October 2020 and other years is misleading

The post incorrectly compares CSO data for ten months in 2020 with previous years.

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A CLAIM SHARED on Facebook suggests that the number of deaths in Ireland between January and the end of October 2020 was significantly lower than in previous years.

The post, which cites the Central Statistics Office (CSO) and Google as sources, claims that 22,416 people died during the first ten months of last year.

It compares deaths in January to October 2020 with deaths in complete twelve-month periods between 2015 and 2019, when more than 30,000 deaths each year were recorded by the CSO.

However, this link is misleading.

The official number of total deaths between January and October 2020 has not yet been finalised, particularly as it can take up to three months to register a death in Ireland.

The CSO states this in a release on its website, where it provides figures for the number of deaths in Ireland during the first ten months of 2020 (a source cited by the Facebook poster).

Firstly, the post omits the number of deaths in November 2020 and December 2020 (which will also be subject to the three-month registration lag time outlined above), so it is not comparing like with like. 

We previously looked here at how similar claims have attempted to downplay the number of deaths in Ireland during 2020.

The Central Statistics Office (CSO) was cited by the original poster, as it is the body that collects data on the number of deaths in Ireland every year.

As the post claims, the CSO does say that there were 31,134 deaths in Ireland in 2019, that there were 30,418 deaths deaths in Ireland in 2017, that there were were 30,667 deaths in Ireland in 2016 and that there were 30,126 deaths in Ireland in 2015.

(The post’s suggestion that there were 31,116 deaths in 2018 is incorrect. According to the CSO, there were 31,140 deaths in Ireland that year.)

In a publication from 24 November last, the CSO also said that there were 22,416 “registered deaths” in Ireland between January and October 2020.

The term “registered deaths” is crucial here.

In a note accompanying the figures, the CSO explains that those deaths were registered with the General Registrar’s Office (GRO) before being notified to the statistics body.

Deaths from injuries caused by things like poisoning, road traffic accidents and suicide “will be under represented”, the CSO said, because they are likely to have been referred to a coroner for further investigation.

“This can result in the registration of these types of deaths being delayed,” the CSO states.

It adds later: “Legally, in Ireland, a death can be registered up to three months after the date of occurrence and therefore not all deaths that took place between 1 January 2020 and 31 October 2020 are included in this.”

In another FactCheck relating to the total number of deaths in Ireland last year, a government spokesperson noted that deaths registered with the GRO “do not represent the number of deaths which have actually occurred”.

The spokesperson explained that in a normal year, around 80% of deaths are registered within three months of the death occurring – so approximately 20% of deaths take longer to be officially notified.

Many people also experienced delays in registering the death of a loved one due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Other analyses suggest there may have been more deaths last year than in previous years. 

In another source from last November, the CSO said that the total number of deaths during the second quarter of the year officially increased by 14.1% compared to the same quarter in 2019.

And last July, the statistics agency estimated that excess mortality for the period from March to September 2020 alone to be between 876 and 1,192.

Excess mortality refers to deaths “over and above what would be expected under normal circumstances”.

That means that up to 1,192 more people in Ireland may have died during those six months in 2020 compared to what would have been expected if Covid-19 had not emerged.

The CSO used data from the website RIP.ie, which publishes death notices from around the country, to monitor deaths close to the time they occurred.

It said there was a “clear increase” in the level of death notices observed in April 2020 compared with drops in mortality levels in April of previous years.

In a statement accompanying its findings, the CSO said that “while there are observable seasonal peaks, there is significant variance year on year”.

Commenting at the time, statistician John Flanagan crucially explained that data for the full year of 2020 would be required to provide a definitive picture of mortality.

In other words, figures for just January to October 2020 would not be sufficient to compare mortality for last year with other years.

But equally, the CSO noted that other adjustments could be required, including a possible lowering of the number of flu deaths last year because of reduced social interaction.

It is technically possible that the number of deaths may have decreased compared with previous years.

What is crucial in the context of the Facebook post is that it is impossible to say right now using just ten months of incomplete data, particularly when indications suggest that the figure could be higher.

It is also important to note that although more than 1,600 people died due to Covid-19 during the first months of the pandemic, the number of deaths was likely lower than if there had been no lockdown at all.

The vast majority of people did not catch the virus through avoiding contact with others. In doing so, they did not become seriously ill with Covid-19 or pass it on to someone else who could become seriously ill themselves.

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As the effects of the first lockdown took hold, case numbers began to drop. In the months since, cases began to rise again once restrictions were eased, and fall again when lockdowns were introduced.

This is how viruses work: they spread in wider society when more people are in contact with each other. Case numbers fall when people are not in contact with each other.

When Covid-19 spreads unchecked, it passes on to a significantly greater proportion of the population, some of whom get seriously ill and die.

In such a scenario, hospitals and intensive care units approach or reach capacity,

The current surge that Ireland is experiencing shows this: as people socialised over Christmas – when restrictions were eased – they spread Covid-19 to others, sometimes dozens of people. This led to case numbers here not seen since the start of the pandemic.

The knock-on effect of current case numbers are that hospitals and ICU wards are now approaching capacity, and such is the level of infections that plans are in place to utilise private hospitals to treat patients.

Though they haven’t saved lives of many patients who have contracted the virus, lockdowns have played a part in keeping the total number of deaths last year lower than they would be had they not been implemented.

With case numbers now falling – as they did in the latter part of previous lockdowns – the reality of this becomes evident.

Contains reporting from previous FactChecks by Órla Ryan and Lauren Boland.

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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

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