NZ’s covid-19 death toll reaches 105, but it ‘could have been thousands’

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Professor of international health Dr Philip Hill ... "I think what we are seeing is just how wonderful a vaccine we've got." Image: RNZ/123rf

RNZ News

The number of people with covid-19 who have died in New Zealand has now reached 105, with 14 deaths reported in the past two days.

There are more than 206,000 active cases of covid-19 in the community, with another 18,699 new community cases reported today.

The Ministry of Health announced seven further deaths of people with covid-19 today which, after another seven deaths yesterday, has taken the total death toll to 105.

But University of Otago professor of international health Dr Philip Hill said international statistics for deaths showed that New Zealand’s number could easily have been in the thousands had the country not had high vaccination rates and effective pandemic restrictions.

“I think what we are seeing is just how wonderful a vaccine we’ve got, that we’re having a massive covid-19 outbreak and not experiencing huge numbers of deaths.”

Hill stressed it should be remembered that covid-19 was continuing to kill New Zealanders, and just like earlier variants omicron was a life-threatening disease.

But he said that with covid-19 so widespread some of the deaths in the death tally so far include people whose death occurred because of other causes, while they also had the virus.

“The classification of these deaths has not been complete for many of them, which basically means that there are significant numbers of people who are dying of something else and that coincidentally have covid-19. That can be quite tricky to tease out.”

In a statement, the Ministry of Health said there were 853 people in hospital with covid-19, including 17 in ICU.

However, Auckland health authorities remain cautiously optimistic that the omicron outbreak may have peaked in the country’s biggest city, and community case numbers in the region continue to slowly fall, with 6077 cases reported today — down from 7240 yesterday and less than half the number reported last week.

‘These are clearly seriously premature deaths’
Epidemiologist Professor Rod Jackson of Auckland University urged older people to take the risk of covid-19 seriously as the number of deaths from the virus continued to rise.

Six of the 14 deaths in the past two days were people in their seventies.

Jackson said it was inevitable that the older population would feel the effects of the virus as it passed from kids to their parents and onwards.

But he said it was not just the oldest people in the community who were at high risk.

“These are clearly seriously premature deaths, this is not just old sick people who are going to die in the next few days, these are people who are losing years of a potential healthy life,” he said.

Stark wake-up call
Dr Jackson said the death toll in Hong Kong was a stark wake-up call for those writing it off as a mild illness.

“You just have to look at Hong Kong today; it’s a population of 7.5 million, so it’s only New Zealand plus a half, and they’re having well over 200 deaths a day. Their health services are overwhelmed. They’re in big trouble at the moment.”

Dr Jackson urged people to keep acting with caution to prevent the spread, and to seek medical advice if they were concerned about their health.

On Thursday the Ministry of Health changed how covid-19-related deaths are reported.

The death of anyone who dies within 28 days of testing positive for covid-19 is now reported.

This group is divided into three categories:

  • where covid-19 is the clear cause of death;
  • where there was another clear cause of death; and
  • where the cause of deaths is not known.

Deaths will mount
By Thursday this week, 34 people had died where covid-19 was clearly the cause, two people had died of another clear cause after testing positive for covid-19, and the deaths of 48 people with the virus did not yet have a clear cause, the ministry said.

As covid-19 cases mount, increasing numbers of deaths will also follow as people progress through the disease, the ministry said.

“It important to remember that each of these deaths represents significant loss for family and loved ones.”

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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