COVID-19 health toll exposed in new report

Three thousand more Australians died in the first two months of this year than expected, but it wasn’t all down to the unfolding Omicron wave of COVID-19, a new study shows.

Australia’s health 2022, the 18th biennial health report released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare on Thursday, sheds new light on the wide-ranging damage COVID-19 has wrought on the nation.

The national excess mortality figure, the difference between actual deaths and the expected number based on previous trends, was down in 2020 and slightly up in 2021, before skyrocketing this year.


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Taking into account statistical variation, 3105 more people died in Australia than expected in January and February after the emergence of the Omicron variant saw national daily cases explode past 100,000.

A high proportion of the excess deaths were attributed to COVID-19, along with larger than expected numbers for coronary heart disease (29 per cent), dementia (24 per cent), chronic lower respiratory conditions (23 per cent), stroke (20 per cent) and diabetes (14 per cent).

Nonetheless, COVID-19’s case fatality rate fell from a peak of 3.3 per cent in October 2020 to 0.1 per cent in April 2022, reflecting the virus’ increasing spread but easing severity amid new variants and the gradual vaccine take-up.

By the end of April, Australia had registered 5335 deaths from COVID-19 – 3107 of which came in 2022.

Some Australians were more likely to die than others.

People living in the country’s poorest areas were almost three times more likely to die from the disease than those from the richest, while people born overseas were 2.5 times more likely to die than those born in Australia.

About 30 per cent of COVID-related deaths since the start of the pandemic have come from residential aged care, though rates have dwindled from 75 per cent in 2020 to 26 per cent in the first few months of 2022.

Indigenous Australians were also seven times more likely to end up in intensive care or dead from the virus than the general population.

As swathes of the nation jumped in and out of lockdown, Australian adults and young people experienced higher levels of psychological distress.

The report cited research showing a 19 per cent rise in self-harm or suicidal ideation presentations in NSW emergency departments among people aged 10 to 24, from March 2020 to June 2021.

“While there has been a rise in the use of mental health services and an increase in psychological distress during the COVID-19 pandemic, the pandemic has not been associated with a rise in suspected deaths by suicide,” it said.

Life satisfaction has similarly shifted, returning to pre-pandemic levels by January 2021 before falling by the Delta wave in August last year.

While too early to detect any fallout from delays to cancer screening and early detection services, AIHW deputy chief executive Matthew James said Australia will be dealing with the affects of COVID for “many years to come”.

“In 2022, no health issue stands above, or has had as wide-reaching impacts on our population and health system,” he said.

OTHER KEY STATS

* 81.2 years life expectancy for boys born from 2018 to 2020, 85.3 years for girls

* Almost 11.6 million Australians had one or more common chronic health condition in 2020-21

* 67 per cent of Australians are either overweight or obese.

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© AAP 2022