Calgary Herald

Alberta needs to be precise when counting COVID-19 victims

Numbers inform decisions touching all aspects of life


Sometimes semantics do matter. Sometimes they are literally a matter of life and death.

For example, the vast majority of Albertans undoubtedl­y believe 112 people died from COVID-19 over the Christmas holiday period. After all, that's what the province's top doctor Deena Hinshaw seemed to indicate Monday when she gave yet another bleak run through of statistics from this dreary pandemic.

Certainly that's what all the various media outlets subsequent­ly reported, so it's likely what most citizens now accept as fact. Except it isn't true.

What's true is over a five-day period, from December 23 up to and including December

27, 112 people were added to the growing toll of Albertans succumbing to this virus, sadly raising the total fatality count past the 1,000 mark.

But hold on a moment. How many of the 112 actually died on those particular days? Ten. To be precise, as of Tuesday morning, data showed: four died on December 23, three on December 24, two on Christmas Day, none on Boxing Day and one on December 27.

The rest of the unfortunat­e souls passed away over the course of the preceding two weeks

— all the way back to December 11 — and the health department just got around to adding them to the ongoing total.

Now, I'm not pulling these numbers from thin air. They are all dutifully catalogued on the excellent and informativ­e Alberta Health website — go to the data export link, set the time frame from December 23 to 27, look under the deaths category and up popped the 10 fatalities, as of Tuesday morning.

So, what's going on? Well, to be fair, Hinshaw didn't actually say 112 people had died over the Christmas period. She did say 112 Albertans had been added to the fatality count — 30 on December 23, 18 more on Christmas Eve and so forth.

OK, by now we've had enough numbers. You get the drift.

Why the delay? My guess — and it is a guess — is the health system is stretched with so many cases to deal with, compounded by the hundreds of staff self-isolating after catching the virus, and made even worse by it being the holiday season where some are on a well-deserved break.

Therefore, it would hardly be unusual to discover that any large organizati­on under such remarkable strain is finding data entry somewhat slower than usual.

Hey, I can almost hear people say: What does it matter anyhow? These people did die after all, so the day when they're finally counted doesn't make any difference.

But it does matter. It matters a lot. We aren't counting widgets here. The number of deaths affects every one of us because decisions touching many aspects of our own individual lives are being made based upon those very numbers.

Perhaps Premier Jason Kenney and Health Minister Tyler Shandro also now believe 112 people died over that five-day Christmas period. Hey, they're busy men and probably aren't as skeptical as me, so thereby take things more on face value. They might not plow through the health website to double-check what appears to be an accepted truth.

So, if they too are under a mistaken belief

— one that happens to be shared by the vast majority of people in our province — then how can they make informed decisions about the current rules and regulation­s which touch us all? Dozens dying at Christmas time isn't exactly the backdrop to consider easing societal restrictio­ns, is it?

Of course we really don't yet know how many people actually did die over those five days in question. By Tuesday morning the number was 10, but given the delay in reporting, it's likely many more did succumb, though likely we'll not know for weeks. (By the time you read this it will have already surpassed that number, for example.)

But come on, we're already confused and fearful enough, so surely a little more precision in this vital matter of life and death would be a suitable and most welcome New Year's resolution.

Chris Nelson is Calgary Herald columnist.

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