Excess mortality rate spikes in B.C. and Alberta, for reasons beyond COVID-19
The pandemic has led to excess mortality across the country since 2020, according to the recent numbers released by Statistics Canada. However, a summer heatwave and illicit drug overdose have combined to cause even higher excess mortalities in two of Canada’s westernmost provinces.
Using Statistics Canada data, CTVNews.ca has compared how excess mortality has shifted since the start of the pandemic, especially in the two most affected provinces of British Columbia and Alberta.
We look at weekly data from Jan. 1, 2020, in order to analyze the course of excess deaths since the start of the pandemic. Please note the data does not include numbers from Yukon. The dataset does not reflect all the numbers since the causes of some deaths are still being investigated.
- B.C. sees highest-ever number of illicit drug overdoses in first 9 months of 2021
- Addictions support advocates seek help to decrease 'rampant' opioid overdoses
What is excess mortality and why does it matter?
Excess mortality is when there are a greater number of actual deaths than estimated over a given period of time. Excess mortality helps understand both direct and indirect impacts of the pandemic by comparing the number of deaths over previous months.
According to provisional data, from March 2020 to the end of September 2021, there were an estimated 20,994 excess deaths in Canada, 5 per cent more deaths than expected if there was no pandemic, due to factors such as changes in the population and aging. Some provinces, including Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia showed periods of excess mortality, with many death numbers coinciding with COVID-19 deaths in the same period.
British Columbia and Alberta show a rise in excess mortality
While more than expected deaths were reported across many provinces, there were other factors that led to more people dying in Canada’s two westernmost provinces, according to Statistics Canada.
The provinces of British Columbia and Alberta have reported higher-than-expected numbers since March 2021, with the highest excess deaths of 1,177 and 455 respectively, in the month of July alone. According to Statistics Canada, the deaths in July were attributed to the heat wave that gripped the provinces.
While heat-related deaths in British Columbia were reported in older age groups of 62 and above during July this year, the more recent increase has been in those under the age of 40, mostly among males. In the months of August and September this year, there were 67 per cent more deaths in males under the age of 40.
In a recent report for deaths occurring in 2020, the coroner’s or medical examiner's service in British Columbia reported 181 deaths in August, the largest number of suspected deaths from illicit drug toxicity in any month. Between January and September, there were 1,534 such deaths, a 24 per cent increase in the same time period from last year. The highest illicit drug toxicity deaths since 2011 were Vancouver (414), Surrey (218), and Victoria (218) in 2020. Seventy-nine per cent of these deaths were in males. The recent data suggests that such numbers could be far surpassed in 2021.
The two provinces continued to record higher-than-expected deaths in September 2021 than any other province.
Significant excess mortality has also been observed in Alberta among people under the age of 40 in the months of August and September this year. However, unlike British Columbia, this trend was similar for both females and males within the same age group.
As of 2021, 75 per cent of deaths of drug poisoning deaths were in males, between the age group 35 to 39, according to the Alberta substance use surveillance system.
The released data comes with a few caveats. Due to lengthy and ongoing investigations in deaths, certain deaths are not recorded by coroners or medical examiners. As a result, it can take longer to report cause-of-death information for such deaths. Due to such reporting delays, numbers from Yukon have not been included in the recent report. Statistics Canada will release more comprehensive data on Jan. 24, 2022.