The actual number of COVID-19 deaths revealed as Government changes 'reporting approach'

The number of deaths clearly caused by COVID-19 is 34, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield has revealed, as the Government changes its "reporting approach". 

Dr Bloomfield said on Thursday the Ministry of Health would from now on report COVID-related deaths in three categories to provide more clarity about the impact of the coronavirus in New Zealand. 

"I'd like to explain some changes to our reporting of COVID-related deaths. From today we will be moving to a new reporting approach. We will automatically report all who die within 28 days of testing positive for COVID-19," Dr Bloomfield said in Wellington. 

"This is the approach that's used by the UK and many other countries and is the one that we will and have used for our official reporting to the World Health Organisation."

Reported COVID-related deaths will now be split into those clearly caused by COVID-19, those who died with COVID-19 but for whom the virus was not the cause of death, and those with COVID whose cause of death is still under investigation.

  • The number of people for whom it is clear COVID-19 was the cause of death is 34
  • The number of people who had or were subsequently found to have COVID-19 when they died but their cause of death was clearly not COVID-related is two
  • The number of people who had COVID-19 but whose cause of death is still under investigation is 48

Dr Bloomfield also revealed nine additional deaths of people who have died within 28 days of a COVID diagnosis that hadn't yet been publicly announced. 

"The main reason for this is these are people who might have died in an aged residential care facility and a GP might have certified the cause of death but it wasn't notified to our Public Health Unit."

With one death announced in Bay of Plenty on Wednesday subsequently being found not to be COVID-19 related, the total number of deaths publicly reported to date is 91.

The Ministry of Health reported nine deaths on Thursday, one at North Shore Hospital on Wednesday. The remaining eight all died in the past fortnight: four in late February and four in March.

Seven of the deaths were in Auckland and one in Waikato. One was in their 60s; three in their 70s; two in their 80s; one in their 90s and one over 100 years of age.

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield.
Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield. Photo credit: Getty Images

The Ministry of Health on Thursday also provided more clarity on COVID-related hospitalisation

Of the official 742 COVID-related hospitalisations reported on Wednesday, it's possible that only about 556 - or 75 percent - are actually seeking treatment for the virus, based on trends in Auckland. 

Bloomfield, under questioning from ACT leader David Seymour, told Parliament's Health Select Committee that in the first weeks of the Omicron outbreak in Auckland, about 75 percent of hospital patients were there because of COVID-related symptoms. 

The Ministry of Health echoed Dr Bloomfield's comments in an official statement, telling Newshub while it's not clear exactly how many cases are actually in hospital for COVID, estimates suggest it's around three-quarters.

"We are developing a way to collect and report this data. We have one estimate that about three-quarters of reported hospitalisations are due to COVID-19 symptoms and the rest have COVID-19 'incidentally'. This is similar to the proportions reported from a US hospital study published last week.

"In countries like Denmark currently it is about 60 percent to 70 percent. The Ministry of Health is also unable to comment on whether hospitalised people have COVID-19 or other symptoms as we do not hold that level of detail about patients.

"There have been several outbreaks in hospital wards, which can contribute to COVID-19 hospitalisation numbers. For some of these cases, they contracted COVID-19 from an exposure in hospital. For this reason, hospitals are now routinely screening all patients being admitted."

Dr Bloomfield said it has been difficult to obtain the data because the reason for a patient's admission to hospital is recorded when they are discharged. 

It comes after COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins told AM on Thursday the Government did not have data on how many COVID-related patients in hospital were there for virus-related symptoms as opposed to other health issues. 

Hipkins said the Government is keeping a closer eye on the number of cases requiring respiratory assistance or intensive care (ICU). 

"One of the measures that we look at for the degree of severity for hospitalisations is the number who require ventilation or require ICU treatment - we have 19 in ICU as of yesterday," Hipkins told AM. 

"That is a number that's going up but that's one we will follow very, very closely because it does help to give us an indication of the sort of severity that the health system is dealing with."

Dr Bloomfield told the Health Select Committee that modelling suggests the Omicron peak is a week or two away.