Australia avoids excess deaths during pandemic

Australia is reaching the peak of COVID-19 deaths resulting from the Omicron wave, experts say. But new data shows that we were one of the few countries globally to record a negative excess death rate (EDR) over the past two years.

The COVID-19 pandemic has tragically meant the loss of thousands of Australian lives. But despite these grim numbers, the nation has remained less affected by the pandemic than other comparable developed nations because while COVID deaths were up, deaths from other causes fell dramatically.

This is mostly the result of strict lockdown measures enacted across the country but also partly down to geographic isolation and sheer luck. But it seems the strict measures may have had another benefit.

Our COVID deaths per capita remain low, and now data compiled by the University of Oxford has shown that Australia was one of the few countries in the world to record a negative EDR across 2020 and 2021.

Read: Booster shot advice causing confusion

The pandemic-related EDR is measured as the difference between the total number of reported deaths since 1 January 2020 and the projected number of deaths for the same period in previous years.

Using fatality data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) combined with COVID-19 death projection data from the University of Washington, researchers determined that Australia recorded around 496 fewer deaths per million people than would have otherwise occurred.

While strict lockdown measures have played their part in supressing deaths, both from COVID and other conditions, experts say our high national vaccination rate has also been a key factor in our relative success during the pandemic.

Across Australia, more than 93 per cent of people aged 16 and over have had two doses of a COVID vaccine, and more than eight million have received a third booster shot.

Read: New COVID pill cuts hospitalisations and deaths in half

“I want to thank Australians for coming forward and continuing to be vaccinated, continuing to be boosted,” health minister Greg Hunt said in a press conference.

“In particular, what we are seeing is a decrease in pressure on ICU. So, in our intensive care units, we have had a significant reduction in the total number of people.

“We had a peak on January 19, of 424 people. We now have 315 people in intensive care on yesterday’s figures, and that’s a reduction of 109 or approximately 25 per cent.”

While the need for a third dose has been established, experts are divided over whether a fourth dose will be needed once protection wanes.

COVID-19 expert Dr Paul Griffin told The Australian he believes three doses combined with widespread community transmission should provide most people with at least six months of protection.

Read: Novavax to begin COVID/flu vaccine trials on older Australians

But what to do after that depends on what new variants emerge.

“I really think we wouldn’t consider doing it any shorter than six months,” Dr Griffin says.

“But it depends on the situation; I think protection will last long enough, well beyond six months, provided we don’t see a new variant that does change that situation.”

It’s even possible that getting a COVID-19 booster could become a yearly ritual, possibly being combined with the influenza jab.

“We’ll need additional doses, probably not stopping at four,” says Dr Griffin.

“It’s too early to know what it will look like.”

Have you had your third booster jab? Would you be willing to get a COVID-19 vaccine every year? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Written by Brad Lockyer

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