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FactCheck: Claim made in full-page Irish Times ad about Covid-19 deaths is false

The ad calls for an alternative approach to ongoing Covid-19 restrictions.

Factcheck

AN AD PUBLISHED in the Irish Times today contains a false claim about how Covid-19 deaths are counted in Ireland.

The full-page ad addressed to “our leaders” calls for an alternative approach to ongoing Covid-19 restrictions, supported by a number of facts taken from Government websites.

It suggests that the restrictions will cause “further damage to our country” and asks if there is “another way to take care of the few who are vulnerable while letting our economy and future survive”. 

Irish Times ad Source: Irish Times

The ad was funded by Moorezey’s Holdings, a finance company registered in Dublin and owned by entrepreneur John Moore.

It also contains a link to a petition called the Great Barrington Declaration, an appeal expressing “grave concerns about the damaging physical and mental health impacts” of Covid-19 policies around the world.

In an article in today’s edition of the paper, Moore told the Irish Times that he had no connections to the group behind the petition, describing himself as “just a concerned citizen”.

“I don’t want to give an opinion, and people can interpret the facts. I’m only an entrepreneur, I’m not an elected official,” he is quoted as saying in the newspaper.

Although most of the claims within the ad are true, they are presented in a way that is misleading or which lack context about the ongoing situation in Ireland.

A further claim – which suggests that if a person who has Covid-19 dies after being hit by a bus, they will be added to official statistics on coronavirus deaths – is false.

Since it was published this morning, the ad has been shared hundreds of times on Facebook by pages linked to Yellow Vests Ireland, a group which claims to be apolitical but is connected to anti-government movements.

The group, a loose network of activists that developed through Facebook groups, has helped to organise a number of protests against Covid-19 restrictions and is one of several networks using the pandemic to try to recruit members.

A post repeated on a number of Yellow Vests Ireland pages claims that the ad is an article, and that it contains “truths” that those who have attended anti-Covid rallies have “tried to make known to the general population”.

TheJournal.ie has looked at the ad and factchecked the claims made in it, giving broader context where necessary.

Multiple attempts to contact the Irish Times for comment on the ad were made, but no response was given by the time of publication.

We sought to confirm whether the Irish Times factchecks ads before publishing them, whether any complaints had been received in relation to the ad, and if the newspaper wished to comment on the ad or subsequent commentary criticising it today.

Counting Covid-19 deaths

One of the claims in the ad relates to how Ireland counts deaths from Covid-19.

It states (as a “fact”): “In Ireland, if a person died from a heart attack, stroke, cancer or even having been hit by a bus and if that person also tested positive for Covid-19, their death is reported as a Covid-19 death”.

The way in which Ireland counts deaths from Covid-19 has been the source of misinformation throughout the pandemic, particularly as attributing a death to the virus isn’t a straightforward process.

We’ve previously examined how Ireland counts Covid-19 deaths compared to other countries here, but let’s take another look at the process.

HPSC Source: Health Protection Surveillance Centre

Attributing a death due to Covid-19 is down to the judgement of individual medical workers in different facilities, from hospitals to nursing homes and other settings.

In cases where a death occurs outside a medical setting, the local coroner is the person responsible – in which case the person’s cause of death can take months to verify.

From the outset of the pandemic, Ireland has reported all deaths in laboratory confirmed cases of Covid-19, in both hospital and community settings.

The numbers are collated by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) and supplied to the Chief Medical Officer, before being reported by the Department of Health every evening.

Deaths due to Covid-19 that are announced are almost always lab confirmed; that is, the deceased has been positively identified as having Covid-19 because they have been tested.

Sometimes, “probable” and “possible” deaths from the virus are notified as well, where a death is notified in a person suspected to have died as a result of Covid-19 but who was not tested.

However, these can later be de-notified, if it has been deemed that the person did not die with Covid-19.

For further background, the World Health Organisation (WHO) provided global guidelines in April on the classification of deaths related to the coronavirus, and gave some further clarity in relation to complex 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 (e.g. trauma).

“There should be no period of complete recovery from Covid-19 between illness and death,” it continued.

“A death due to Covid-19 may not be attributed to another disease (e.g. cancer) and should be counted independently of pre-existing conditions that are suspected of triggering a severe course of Covid-19.”

A HSE spokeswoman told TheJournal.ie that if there is a clear alternative cause of death that cannot be related to Covid-19, it is not notified as a death from the virus.

In the case where a person who has the virus is knocked down and killed by a bus, like the Irish Times ad suggests, the cause of death will be noted as something related to the traffic incident – like trauma or organ damage.

That primary cause of death would not be related to the person having Covid-19, so it would not result in an addition to official figures on deaths as a result of the virus.

However, the claim in the ad also suggests that people with Covid-19 who die from a heart attack or stroke will be recorded as Covid-19 fatalities.

The WHO guidance issued in April notes 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”.

It adds that if a person who died from Covid-19 was suffering from other conditions, these should be included on the death certificate.

download (3) Source: WHO

In Ireland, a Covid-19 death is notified in a person with laboratory confirmation of the virus, irrespective of clinical signs and symptoms (including where a test is carried out post mortem).

So if a person with Covid-19 dies from a heart attack or a stroke, their death will be recorded and added to the figures. The ad is correct in this regard.

This is because Covid-19 is a notifiable disease, and for surveillance purposes, the HPSC has to notify the Chief Medical Officer when someone with the virus dies.

But it is not really accurate to suggest that Ireland’s figures are being inflated by Covid-19 patients dying from strokes or heart attacks.

Firstly, it’s not just a given that these patients would have died from a heart attack or a stroke regardless.

And in medical terms, people don’t die from Covid-19: they might die from respiratory failure, or kidney failure, or another cause that happens as a result of contracting the virus.

If a person who has Covid-19 dies from a heart attack or a stroke, it’s plausible that Covid-19 was more than an incidental factor. It is misleading to suggest otherwise. 

Underlying conditions

The ad also contains a number of other claims about those who have died as a result of Covid-19 in Ireland, including that 94.61% of people who have died as a result of the virus had other underlying health issues as well.

Although this is true (based on up-to-date statistics cited in the ad), what is classed as an underlying condition can range from cancer to diabetes and high blood pressure.

Underlying conditions do not mean that a person who died as a result of Covid-19 was already sick and possibly going to pass away anyway.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health previously told TheJournal.ie that a third of people in Ireland (32%) have a long-standing health condition.

“Those with underlying medical conditions who have died from Covid-19 may have continued to live for a long time if they had not contracted it,” the spokesperson added.

We have debunked this type of claim in more detail here.

HPSC2 Source: Health Protection Surveillance Centre

Median age of deaths

The ad likewise presents the median age of all those who have died as a result of the virus, 83, beside the figure for current life expectancy in Ireland.

It states that “the median age of people who have died from Covid-19 have lived longer than the normal life expectancy in Ireland”.

The figure used for the average life expectancy of Ireland, 81.5, is cited as being taken from the World Health Organisation. A look at the WHO’s website shows that the figure is true (although the group says that the figure is from 2016).

The median age of all Covid-19 deaths, 83, is therefore 1.5 years above Ireland’s current life expectancy according to the WHO.

But figures from the Department of Health suggest the current average life expectancy is actually somewhere above 82.

According to the department, the average life expectancy in Ireland is 84 years for women and 80.4 years for men.

In that case, the median age of all Covid-19 deaths is 2.6 years above the average life expectancy for men based on the department’s figures – but still one year below the figure for women.

Although the figures for the number of men and women who have died is almost even, it is notable in this context that, at the time of writing, women account for more than half of deaths as a result of Covid-19 in Ireland.

The claim also omits some key contextual information, including that more than half of deaths to date have occurred in residential settings such as nursing homes – where older people live.

Congregated settings, such as nursing homes, posed one of the greatest risks of clusters of infection in Ireland, particularly among a population which was deemed to be most at-risk from the virus.

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While the transmission of the virus was largely controlled outside congregated settings during the shutdown earlier this year, the situation in nursing homes is an example of what happens when the virus is allowed to spread among vulnerable groups.

The median age of all Covid-19 deaths would likely be lower if such restrictions were not in place.

Furthermore, the use of the median age statistic in comparison to Ireland’s current life expectancy is, like the use of the underlying condition figure, a suggestion that those who died were already sick and possibly going to die anyway, when this may not have been the case.

People aged under 44

The median age claim in the ad is contrasted with a further claim that only 20 people in Ireland have died as a result of the virus aged under 44, suggesting that older people are mainly susceptible to the virus.

It is important to note that although this is true and many more older people have died as a result of the virus in Ireland, this is partly because of the way nursing homes were affected during the first phase of the pandemic.

Furthermore, death is not the only outcome from Covid-19. 

Many of those who contract the virus, including young people, continue to suffer from after-effects for months afterwards, while the WHO has said that some patients “develop medical complications that may have lasting health effects”.

In a US study among those aged 18 to 34 years who were in good health before they contracted the virus, 20% reported that some symptoms were prolonged.

The WHO further warned that long-term health problems as a result of Covid-19 could include heart failure, lung failure, loss of smell, cognitive impairment, fatigue and anxiety and depression.

The group also says that as a new illness, it still not fully known what the long-term effects of the virus are and more time and research is needed to understand them.

A further claim in the ad is that four times as many people under the age of 44 died in car accidents than as a result of Covid-19 last year.

“There is literally more chance of dying from being hit by a bus, a car or being in a fatal traffic collision than from Covid-19 – yet our government is not stopping people from driving.”

Once again, this is a misleading comparison based on skewed odds. 

Those aged under 44 took millions of journeys in vehicles and had millions of interactions with traffic in Ireland in 2019.

The number of times they did these things dwarfs the number of possible interactions that people under the age of 44 had with the virus so far this year.

Once again, the statistic means nothing because is not possible to know how many more people aged under 44 would have died from Covid-19 if restrictions were not put in place.

Additional reporting from previous FactChecks by Órla Ryan and Nicky Ryan.

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