Covid becomes equal leading cause of death in New Zealand for first time

Covid-19 became the equal leading cause of death in New Zealand for the first time in July, overtaking stroke and drawing even with ischaemic heart disease as the country’s No 1 killer.

Michael Baker, an epidemiologist and public health professor, said that for a period in July-August Covid appeared to be causing at least as many deaths as heart disease.

Baker said that in mid-July, Covid deaths made up almost 15% of deaths overall, referring to data analysis by the New Zealand Herald that compared confirmed Covid deaths against overall deaths in July. Baker said those deaths were likely a slight undercount, as some people would have died of Covid-19 without being tested.

Baker said that toll would place Covid as “at least six times higher, it might be 10 times higher than the road toll”. If the pandemic’s current trajectory continued, annual Covid deaths would be about five times influenza deaths – the disease once used as “benchmark” for Covid 19. Heart disease typically accounts for about 15% of New Zealand deaths, and stroke about 8%.

“Mortality in this wave has reached a new peak in New Zealand,” Baker said. “[But] at the point where we’re seeing peak mortality, we’ve seen, seemingly, public interest and concern dropping to quite a low level – and I find that paradoxical. Of course we all want the pandemic finished, but we can’t wish it away.”

On Monday, the ministry of health reported 1,638 deaths had been attributable to Covid-19 since the outbreak began. Those are deaths where Covid was either the underlying cause of death or a contributing factor to death.

The ministry reported 4,006 active cases of Covid-19 and 654 hospitalisations. Overall, Covid cases in New Zealand are trending down: the seven-day rolling average of case numbers was 5,288, compared with 6,990 last Monday. A child under the age of 10 was among the 13 daily deaths linked to Covid in the latest update.

Baker said that with Covid cases decreasing from a peak of infections in July, he would not expect it to remain the leading cause of death across the year, but it would probably be in the top two or three.

“At the moment excess mortality in New Zealand is running at about 10% above normal, so that’s consistent with something in the order of 3,000 deaths a year from Covid-19,” he said. “It’s not quite at that level [of heart disease] but it’s above strokes and all the leading cancers.”

If it continued, he said, it would “have a measurable impact on life expectancy in New Zealand”.

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