Covid-19 Australia: Health departments record falling death rate in 2024

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After years of fear and lockdowns, 2024 could mark the end of Covid’s long hold over Australia.

Data from the Department of Health and Aged care shows a clear and steady decline in Covid associated deaths in the first four months of the year, with seven-day rolling averages slipping from about 10 in early January to below five by early April.

Since early March, the number of average deaths has stayed consistently below 5, the lowest number since the outbreak of the respiratory virus in March 2020.

The data, which comes from the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System, records deaths linked to the virus, but notes that factors such as other diseases of chronic conditions may also have contributed to or caused deaths associated with Covid.

The latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics on Covid mortality, released in late February, also suggests that while the virus is still a lethal threat, its lethality may be declining.

In January 2022, the ABS recorded 1646 deaths due to Covid in the month, while in January 2023 the figure was 753.

In January 2024, the number was 189, though the ABS warned the figure would likely rise as additional death registrations were received by the statistics agency.

“For every month in 2023 deaths due to Covid have been below the level of the comparable month in 2022,” the ABS said.

The health department has cautioned its seven-day rolling averages should be read with some caution, however, given the decline in Covid testing.

“With the reduction in Covid’s testing, attribution of deaths to Covid will significantly underestimate Covid mortality,” the department states.

Associate professor in epidemiology at Deakin University Hassan Vally said the fall in deaths suggested the overall threat of Covid had fallen since its explosion in the world in March 2020.

“Principally it demonstrates how improved immunity, through vaccination and prior infection, improved treatments and a better understanding of the virus, has fundamentally altered the impact of Covid on society since its emergence,” he said.

Australian National University infectious diseases expert Associate Professor Sanjaya Senanayake suggested the prevalence of the omicron variant was also a factor in the lower numbers.

“Omicron subvariants have continued to dominate the global Covid landscape for over two years,” he said.

“This means that the combination of immunity from natural infection with Omicron subvariants, in addition to vaccine-induced immunity, has had a positive impact on levels of severe Covid.

“In addition, the free early access to antivirals such as Paxlovid to people at risk of severe Covid has further put Australia in a great position to dampen severe disease from this virus.”

But the professor warned Covid was not “going anywhere”.

“Covid is still circulating and it isn’t going anywhere,” he said.

“Like influenza, it will mutate. And like influenza, a big mutation, for example, into a new variant, which will be Pi, the next letter in the Greek alphabet, could lead to a significant outbreak of Covid.

“However, even if this occurs, we still have effective antivirals to protect people at risk.”