TORONTO -- As excess death figures are used around the world to suggest COVID-19 death tolls may be worse than official tallies show, the limited information available in Canada suggests that may not be the case here – or at least was not during the early days of the pandemic.

"Excess deaths" is the term used to describe the number of deaths recorded during a given time period above the number that would have been expected based on historical trends. In places including New York City and the United Kingdom, these figures have been used to suggest that far more people have died from COVID-19 than are recorded in the official tally.

In Canada, these numbers are tracked on the provincial and territorial level. More than 170 deaths above the expected level were recorded in British Columbia between March and early May, only 111 of which have officially been connected to the novel coronavirus.

The first attempt at calculating a national excess death toll was made public on Wednesday, as Statistics Canada released estimated excess death numbers for most of the country. New Brunswick, Ontario, Yukon and Nunavut were not included due to a lack of readily available data, and StatCan has cautioned that the information is provisional and subject to change.

The agency found that between Jan. 1 and March 31, the eight provinces and one territory included in the data actually saw 1,145 fewer deaths than expected.

The excess death number was found to be negative in almost every week of the quarter. The only exceptions were one week in late January and the final week of March.

Alberta led the way by far, with 374 excess deaths recorded over the three-month period. Five excess deaths were reported in the Northwest Territories, as well as two in Prince Edward Island. Every other province included in the data recorded fewer deaths than expected. Quebec, which has been hit harder by the pandemic than any other part of Canada, logged 1,257 fewer deaths than expected between January and March, according to StatCan.

Canada's first death linked to the novel coronavirus was reported in B.C. on March 8.

When excess deaths were recorded, StatCan said, it is not yet possible to determine whether they were caused by COVID-19 or other factors.

Deaths per week, January to March since 2010

These charts plot the number of deaths reported by provinces on a weekly basis from the beginning of January until the end of March. Data has only been provided by nine provinces and territories.

The difference in total deaths between 2019 and 2020 is shown in brackets. Years before 2019 are represented by faint grey lines behind the chart. Numbers have not been adjusted for populations growing year over year.

Total difference
past years

"It's very preliminary data," Dr. Rob Beanlands, the head of cardiology at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, told CTV News Channel on Wednesday.

"I think it's a bit too soon to make any judgment."

It is still possible Canada has recorded excess deaths as the pandemic has unfolded. StatCan's figures stop at March 31, when the Public Health Agency of Canada had only linked 96 Canadian deaths to the novel coronavirus. The total is now over 5,000.

In New York City and other jurisdictions, where links between COVID-19 and excess deaths have been alleged, the data stretches into May.

StatCan says it will extend the time period of its excess death estimates and provide more detailed information as the data becomes available.

Even when excess deaths cannot be specifically linked to COVID-19, the pandemic may still be an indirect cause. Beanlands said some jurisdictions have reported excess deaths that may be tied to delays in seeking help for non-COVID-19-related conditions.

"Nobody knows exactly why that's happening … but the belief is it's because people may not be seeking [medical assistance] in a timely manner," he said.

Beanlands said he has heard of cardiac patients in Ontario who have chosen not to call 911 when they developed chest pain, possibly afraid to leave their home or visit a hospital unless absolutely necessary.

Instead, he said, they only sought help when their conditions worsened – late enough that it can be much more difficult for doctors to help them.

Charts created by Jesse Tahirali and Mahima Singh