Deaths rise in New Zealand due to COVID, demographic shifts

March 7, 2023 GMT
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson walks to a press conference to announce the country will move to a COVID red traffic light setting during a press conference at the Beehive at Parliament in Wellington, New Zealand, Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022. The Associated Press on Tuesday, March 7, 2023, reported on social media posts falsely claiming that New Zealand is seeing its biggest increase in deaths in a century because of the coronavirus vaccine. (Mark Mitchell/NZME via AP)
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson walks to a press conference to announce the country will move to a COVID red traffic light setting during a press conference at the Beehive at Parliament in Wellington, New Zealand, Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022. The Associated Press on Tuesday, March 7, 2023, reported on social media posts falsely claiming that New Zealand is seeing its biggest increase in deaths in a century because of the coronavirus vaccine. (Mark Mitchell/NZME via AP)

CLAIM: New Zealand is seeing its biggest increase in deaths in a century because of the coronavirus vaccine.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. Government officials and experts in New Zealand say the rise in deaths last year is the result of the country’s first true wave of COVID-19 infections, which follow the lifting of the strict lockdown policy maintained during the first two years of the pandemic. They also say the country’s aging population is playing a role.

THE FACTS: Social media users are blaming coronavirus vaccines with a dramatic rise in deaths in the Polynesian island nation more than three years after the pandemic emerged.

Many are sharing a screenshot of a New Zealand Herald article from last month with the headline: “New Zealand records biggest increase in registered deaths in 100 years.”

The screenshot also includes a photo of former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who resigned in January after guiding the country through the pandemic, with illustrations of syringes dripping with blood superimposed over her.

“I’m sure having 80% of the population vaccinated has nothing to do with it,” wrote one Instagram user who shared the screenshot in a post that’s been liked more than 3,000 times as of Tuesday.

Government officials and academic experts in New Zealand confirm the country saw its largest year-over-year increase in deaths in a century last year.

The number of deaths in the country hit 38,574 in 2022, up 10% from 34,932 in 2021, according to a release last month from Stats NZ, the country’s official data agency. It’s the biggest annual change since a more than 55% increase in deaths following the 1918 flu pandemic.

But officials and experts say the culprit isn’t COVID-19 vaccines.

Rebekah Hennessey, an analyst with Stats NZ, said a significant factor is the nation’s growing but aging population.

New Zealand’s population has grown by roughly 9% since 2015, while the number of people aged 65 and over has increased by 18%, according to the agency’s data.

“More people in older ages is going to mean more deaths even if the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t happen,” Hennessey explained in an email.

Last year’s death figures underscore these demographic trends: nearly two in every three deaths were among people aged 75 years or older and about one in five were among those 90 and older, according to the agency.

The pandemic itself was the other key driver. Around 2,400 of all deaths last year were attributable to COVID-19, Stats NZ said in its Feb. 20 release, citing national health data.

“This includes people dying directly from COVID-19, people who might have missed out on healthcare as a result of the pandemic, and people who were protected by increased hygiene awareness and lockdowns in previous years,” Hennessey wrote.

Michael Baker, an epidemiologist at the University of Otago in Wellington, agreed with the agency’s assessment, noting that last year’s sharp rise in mortality coincided with the country’s first widespread coronavirus infections.

“This delayed timing for COVID-19 circulation in New Zealand was because its elimination strategy largely prevented introduction of COVID-19 for the first two years of the pandemic,” he wrote in an email, referring to the country’s former zero-tolerance approach, which involved strict lockdowns, border quarantine restrictions and aggressive contact tracing in order to stamp out COVID entirely.

“We had only 48 COVID-19 deaths in 2020 and 2021,” wrote Baker, who also serves on the New Zealand Ministry of Health’s COVID-19 advisory group. “With the arrival of the highly infectious Omicron variant in January 2022, New Zealand transitioned away from elimination to a mitigation strategy for managing the pandemic. Infection became widespread.”

There’s no evidence COVID vaccines contributed to last year’s increased deaths, either, Baker and other experts say.

Roughly 180 potentially vaccine-related deaths have been reported to federal authorities since the COVID inoculation was first rolled out, but only four have so far been found to be likely linked to the shot, according to a December report from the country’s Centre for Adverse Reactions Monitoring, which collects and evaluates reports of adverse drug reactions.

What’s more, over 90% of adults in New Zealand were fully vaccinated in 2021 -- a year when overall deaths were very low, said Michael Plank, a statistics professor at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch who specializes in the mathematical modeling of infectious diseases.

“The timing of the excess deaths in 2022 does not fit with the vaccine rollout, but does fit with the first time COVID spread widely in New Zealand,” he wrote in an email.

New Zealand has also experienced lower excess mortality during the pandemic than most countries, Plank added, citing statistics compiled by Our World in Data, an open access data project based at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

“The reason is simple,” he wrote. “Most New Zealanders were vaccinated before coming into contact with the virus.”

___

This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.