Jan. 8, 2022

Critical Thought Applied In Real Time

On November 27, 2021 the Saskatoon Star Phoenix news published a 'deep dive' into deaths in Saskatchewan with this lead in (LINK):

Deaths in Saskatchewan rose by six per cent in 2020 over the pre-pandemic five-year average and are trending to increase more this year.

Enough people died in Saskatchewan last year to form the province’s 13th largest city

Sounds as though people are dropping everywhere and you aught to be watching for bodies when driving down the street. It is wording like the Star Phoenix have used here that cause me to question both the intent of the article and the validity of its conclusions.

I would like to take a 'deep dive' into this article and share with you what I was able to get out of it while spending five minutes of (mostly) internet footwork.

My first observation is that the Star Phoenix article is using a 'five year average' of deaths in the province to compare with only one year; 2020. This article does not mention that through that 5-year period from which the average is taken, the population of Saskatchewan has increased and then decreased by tens of thousands of people. How can a change be calculated without providing accurate reference points for the 'before' and 'after'?

To begin with some 'fact checking' I search Saskatchewan's Vital Statistics in the hope that their government publishes mortality rates for the previous decade or three. With relative ease I find that the Government of Saskatchewan web pages make all manner of statistics available (LINK), (LINK)

Most importantly I find the 'All Cause Mortality' tables for the past decade plus the population trends for that same time. I will compare numbers at the end of this post but first, back to the article and a look at how it is constructed.

After the scary, 'click-bait' headline, the article introduces an expert on the topic:
Dr. Cory Neudorf, a professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Saskatchewan, is studying mortality in Canada before and during the pandemic. He is also the acting senior medical health officer with the Saskatchewan Health Authority.

The expert gives his synopsis of the situation:
The overall increase in deaths during the pandemic helps dispel a common misconception. This also goes against the argument, as crass and as inappropriate as it is, where people try to somehow minimize the death toll of COVID by saying it’s primarily hitting the elderly or people with chronic medical conditions. Well, the excess mortality data shows that this isn’t just someone who was going to die this year and COVID was the last straw.

In an article like this I look for ease in finding proof of the claims made; relevant and verifiable figures rather than useless data piled up to look important. Sadly there are lines of useless statistics in this article and here is a sample:

From 2015 to 2019, Saskatchewan averaged 9,499 deaths a year, according to Statistics Canada.

That number increased by about six per cent in 2020, a difference of 608 deaths, according to Saskatchewan’s annual population report. Yet only 153 deaths in 2020 were officially linked to COVID-19.

Last year, 4,917 total deaths were recorded during the first six months and just 13 were attributed to COVID-19.

Compared to the pre-pandemic five-year deaths average for the first six months of the year (4,784), deaths increased this year by 563 or nearly 12 per cent — so Saskatchewan had started down the road toward its most deaths in at least 50 years prior to the deadly fourth wave.

Since June, 348 deaths have been reported as linked to COVID-19.

Now the article adds some 'impact' because people have become confused scanning through all the crap written above;

(I really like this line from the article): “Some historical context: the 1918 Spanish Flu is estimated to have killed about 5,000 Saskatchewan people.”

The two highest quarterly death counts in the last 50 years were recorded in the fourth quarter of 2020, 2,794, and the first quarter of this year, 2,864. Third-quarter 2021 deaths are expected to be reported in mid-December, but those will exclude October, the deadliest month for official COVID-19 deaths. The province reported 156 deaths from COVID-19 in October, topping the 153 in January.

Despite all the values thrown about, two critical numbers are used in the article to scare you; the 4,900 people who died in the first six months of 2020 and the 5,000 (approximately) who died of Spanish Flu. Because those two numbers are similar the reader just scanning the article now has the subtle impression that our novel virus is just as deadly.

For reference, the Spanish Flu took almost two years to play out and the population of Saskatchewan was less than half a million at that time, but more on that at the end of this critiquing.

Closing statements of the article say that they really don't know anything for sure:
Neudorf said there could be multiple reasons for the higher number of deaths in 2020 and the first six months of this year, but nailing them down will take time and more complete data

But a tid-bit of good information is found in the last paragraph:
Yet deaths in Saskatchewan did not begin to climb until the end of 2020 and the province avoided the same long-term care devastation as other jurisdictions.

Nowhere in the article does it offer an exact number of deaths for the years preceding 'covid' (2014/2019), only an average, nor does it reference the population of the province. If it did provide that information the reader would be able to calculate the rate of 'All Cause Mortality' for themselves.

This is an instance where information contained within Saskatchewan's Vital Statistics is necessary to evaluate the claims of the article.

All Cause Mortality is a summary of deaths in a particular year, from all causes. It is expressed as a number of deaths per one hundred thousand people of the total population.

For the years between 2014 and 2018 Saskatchewan's raw data for females offers an average 833.8 deaths per 100,000 people. Males died at a rate of 875.0 per 100,000 population. Combined average, adjusted for the variable population over that time is 854.4 total deaths per 100,000 people per year in the 'pre-pandemic' years.

According to the article, the year 2020 saw 10,107 deaths in the province from all causes. Saskatchewan's Vital Statistics show the average population of Saskatchewan in 2020 was 1,179,000 people. Divide that population number by 100,000 to get 11.79 blocks of 100,000 people.

Now take the 2020 death rate and divide it by the 11.79 blocks of 100,000 people and you get 857 deaths per 100,000. Not a big difference from the recent average of 854.4; (857 – 854.4) = 2.6 more people per 100,000 or about 1/3 of one percent (1.003) increase.

Using the governments own numbers it is difficult to believe the breathless claim of a 6 percent (1.060) increase. Overall I find the article to be misleading at the very least and most likely published to instill fear in the population.

As far as the Spanish Flu death toll goes, it is 'estimated' that the population of Saskatchewan in 1916, two years before the flue hit, was 642,484 (LINK) or a little more than half of what it is today

Using the same math from above with the estimated death toll of 5,000 over the 24 months the Flu took to play out (2,500 / 6.42484) we get an average mortality rate of 389 deaths per 100,000 population per year, which is half the average for the province these past couple of decades. Please note that neither the number of deaths nor the number of people living in the province in 1918 through 1920 can be known for sure so take this estimate or any reference to deaths from the Spanish Flu with a grain of salt.

Last but certainly not least is that 'tid-bit' of information from the last paragraph of the article which states;

“...deaths in Saskatchewan did not begin to climb until the end of 2020

This tells me that the novel virus raged through the province for entirety of 2020 before the vaccines became available but the death rate only started to climb 'after' the vaccines were introduced.

It is amazing what information is provided when you take the time to peel back a few layers. 2020 to 2021 differences in death rates are described by American Life Insurance companies in the blog entry; Of Actuaries And Cremation (LINK)

Thank you for taking your time to read this post and I hope you have gained a better feel for how to deconstruct anything you read or hear in the media, or from any source.