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Australian COVID-19 deaths hit new lows

The build-up in immunity was significant, said Curtin University Professor Jaya Dantas. “This is a good sign, as it indicates there is herd immunity from people having had COVID-19 globally and vaccination uptake.”

Australian Catholic University lecturer Roger Lord said the pandemic had taken an expected path.

“In Australia, the virus appears to be following a similar pattern to what was seen for the Spanish flu pandemic, with successive peaks of COVID-19 cases becoming smaller with each wave,” Dr Lord said. “This is encouraging and no doubt a reflection of the high levels of vaccination attained in the Australian population.”

But UNSW infectious disease modeller James Wood warned against over-interpreting the data.

“While this is encouraging data, it’s almost certainly not correct that there were zero COVID deaths in that week,” Associate Professor Wood said.

“Instead, our near real-time reporting system for reporting of deaths has mostly wound down, and we now need to rely on the slower ABS [Australian Bureau of Statistics] reporting, which tends to occur at about a two-month delay.”

The Actuaries Institute’s Karen Cutter also warned about over-claiming from the Health Department data.

“The graph is compiled using date of death, and it is almost impossible for someone to die, have their death registered, and included in the Fed data within a week!” Ms Cutter posted on X.

Virus still circulating

The official reporting of deaths is complex and approaches have varied across the states during the pandemic, causing confusion. Ms Cutter cautioned there was “something screwy” about the recent death data. She said death and hospitalisation numbers tended to tightly track each other, but this had not been the case recently.

Experts warned the virus was still circulating.

“COVID-19 is still circulating, and it isn’t going anywhere,” ANU infectious diseases specialist Sanjaya Senanayake said. “Like influenza, it will mutate. And like influenza, a big mutation, for example, into a new variant, could lead to a significant outbreak of COVID-19.”

According to the ABS, 21,827 of the 687,639 death registrations between March 2020 and January 2024 were of people who died from or with COVID-19.

Health experts have tracked the impact of the pandemic by looking at how many extra deaths there were, above what would normally have been predicted.

According to the Actuary Institute’s mortality working group, there were 8400 more deaths in 2023 than expected if the pandemic had not happened. Total excess mortality for the year was up 5 per cent, half the level of 2022, the worst year for pandemic deaths in Australia.

More than half (4600) of the excess mortality was due to deaths from COVID-19, more than 10 times the number of deaths from influenza. Another 1500 were COVID-related deaths, and the remaining excess of 2300 deaths had no mention of COVID-19 on the death certificate.

Actuaries standardise mortality numbers to account for the different age profiles of communities, enabling better comparisons of regional impacts.

A recent OECD report standardised COVID-19 mortality numbers for member states. It shows Australia among the top league of countries in terms of saving lives, one of six of the most successful nations in reducing the higher than usual mortality stemming from the pandemic. Australia also enjoyed one of the strongest economic recoveries.

The Actuaries Institute has also published standardised death numbers for Australia. It shows the actual standardised death rate for 2023 was just 0.6 per cent lower than for 2019. This compared with the non-pandemic expectation that it would have been 5.2 per cent lower than 2019.