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Debunked: Misleading post gives inaccurate reflection of Ireland's excess mortality during Covid-19 pandemic

The post has been seen more than 20,000 times on Facebook.
Apr 28th 2021, 6:30 PM 22,192 0

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A MISLEADING POST on social media is suggesting that the number of Covid-19 related deaths in Ireland is only a “claim” by the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET).

The post, which was uploaded to Facebook, claims that Ireland recorded fewer deaths over the last fifteen months compared to average deaths in the previous five years.

The figure appears to have been arrived at by looking at death notices posted on RIP.ie and comparing them to the average number of notices in the previous five years. 

“RIP.ie analysis shows the rolled-up reality: from Jan 2020 to March 2021 we had 103 fewer deaths than the same period over the past five years,” the post says.

“After more than a year and multiple seasonal spreads of a high-R virus, only excess mortality can be used to judge the true impact,” it says.

The post was uploaded on 15 April and has been viewed 20,500 times on the platform since then, but its suggestion that the Covid-19 death toll is inflated disregards how deaths, including deaths related to Covid-19, are recorded in Ireland.

In Ireland, the family of a person who has died has three months to register the death with the General Registration Office (GRO).

Registered deaths are sent to the Central Statistics Office (CSO), which publishes provisional data for each quarter of the year within five months of the end of each period.

Final data, which also includes details of deaths that were referred to a coroner for an investigation or inquiry, are published up to 22 months after the end of the period they occurred in.

This means that total figures on overall deaths for recent months are not available in their final form.

Excess mortality is a measurement used to describe deaths that are “over and above what would be expected under normal circumstances”.

The Central Statistics Office has published an estimate of excess mortality for seven months of 2020 from the first wave of the pandemic.

To analyse excess mortality during the pandemic, the CSO drew on data from RIP.ie to monitor deaths close to the time they occurred.
RIP.ie is not an official database. The website allows death notices to be registered close to real-time, which means it gives a quicker indication – but not a foolproof account – of deaths as they occur.

Because of the limitations of using RIP.ie as a source, the CSO acknowledged that its excess mortality figure is an estimate, and as such, it gave a range that it believes the figure fell into for those months.

Between March and September 2020, it estimates that excess mortality was between 876 and 1,192.

“The range is calculated by comparing death notices for the months of March to September 2020 against death notices for the same months in the previous year, and against an average of the same period in the previous two years and previous three years,” the CSO explained.

A recent analysis of RIP.ie data by researchers from Maynooth University and the University of Limerick, which looked at a longer period and was presented on RTÉ’s Prime Time, put excess mortality at around 3,200 for the entire year between 1 March 2020 and 28 February 2021.

The analysis adjusted for death notices on the website that were duplicates or for deaths that occurred outside of Ireland.

Covid-19 deaths are reported by NPHET and the Department of Health on an ongoing basis as they are notified to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC).

Some deaths are brought to its attention shortly after the person dies, while for others, the family might take more time to report the death, which is why you may have noticed that daily figures sometimes note that some of the deaths announced on that day occurred in an earlier month.

Up to 31 December 2020, 2,237 deaths related to Covid-19 had been reported by NPHET.

In the four months since then, the number of deaths has more than doubled.

As of today, 4,896 Covid-19 related deaths have been recorded in Ireland.

In a response to a parliamentary question last week, Minister of State Jack Chambers said that the “timeliness of mortality data in Ireland” means that the Central Statistics Office is “not currently in a position to produce excess mortality figures for Ireland for 2020 using official data”.

Chambers said that “final data, based on the date the death occurred, is published within 22 months of the end of the reference period”.

“The most recent final mortality data published was for 2018 which was disseminated at the end of October 2020. This time lag is to allow for as many records as possible that had been referred to the Coroner to be included in the data and thus the inability to calculate official estimates for Ireland for 2020,” he said.

However, recognising the importance of using other sources to provide more timely information to users, the CSO worked with data from RIP.ie to support the calculation of an estimated figure for excess mortality in Ireland.”

Chambers said that the Department of Health and the GRO are working on proposals to change the process for death registration in Ireland.

“These proposals include a requirement that deaths would be notified to the GRO in a much more timely fashion and this would allow for the more timely publication of summary mortality statistics and also allow for the more timely calculation of excess mortality statistics using official data,” he said. 

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Facts and figures

Currently, the CSO has provisional data on deaths during the first nine months of 2020 available on its website.

For the first quarter of the year, the number of deaths was largely in line with the same period the previous year – 8,674 in 2020 and 8,618 in 2019.

The first death of a patient with Covid-19 was recorded in Ireland on 11 March 2020.

The number of Covid-19 related deaths started to grow in the second half of March and spiked in April, with 270 Covid-19 related deaths recorded in the week of 17 April.

Between April and June 2020, total deaths increased by 6%, rising from 7,519 in 2019 to 8,582.

Total deaths and Covid-19 deaths were lower in the third quarter of 2020 compared to the previous year and previous quarter respectively.

In the third quarter, there were 7,111 deaths registered, which is 3.4% lower than the same period in 2019, when there were 7,358 deaths.

As the number of virus cases fell, Covid-19 deaths were also lower than earlier in the year, with the number of deaths recorded in daily figures usually fewer than five or ten a day.

CSO figures are not yet available for the total number of deaths in Ireland during the last quarter of 2020 or the first quarter of 2021.

Deaths related to Covid-19 began to spike again near the end of the year and into the start of 2021 as the transmission of the virus rose rapidly.

When a death is registered with the GRO and sent to the CSO, the CSO assigns an underlying cause of death for its records using the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-10).

The CSO defines a Covid-19 death 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-19 (e.g. trauma). There should be no period of complete recovery between the illness and death.” 

False, misleading or unproven claims about deaths in Ireland over the last year – both the total number of deaths and deaths related to Covid-19 – have been made and shared during the pandemic, many of which have been debunked by The Journal.

The Journal’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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Lauren Boland

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