Few countries can boast the low infection rates and effective contact tracing which the nation of New Zealand has managed to accomplish during the global coronavirus pandemic. The island's government—under the direction of their popular Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern—has effectively combated community transmission and has even purchased vaccines for neighboring island nations. This response to the virus has gained the attention of many around the world. According to a new paper published in The Lancet, it appears that these social distance measures have not only limited the number of cases and resulting deaths from the dangerous new virus, but the average mortality rate of the nation actually dipped well below levels seen in past “normal” years.
As it stands today, New Zealand has reported only 2,188 cases and 25 deaths due to COVID-19. In New Zealand, 2020 began with reported weekly mortality rates on par with the proceeding several years. However, a team of researchers from the Medical Institute of New Zealand noticed a surprising trend when they began to examine mortality data about six months after the enacting of pandemic-response restrictions. The team compared weekly data from 2020 with numbers averaged per calendar week from the mortality rates in 2015 to 2019. Although the 2020 data is readily available, many autopsy and medical records stating cause of death have been slow to update due to the obstacles facing medical staff and local governments. As a result, the team could only discover the low mortality rate without concretely explaining it at the time of publication.
Despite the missing details, the team's findings were statistically clear and significant. In mid-March (week 12 of the year), New Zealand implemented a strict lockdown with border closures and compulsory self-isolation for any travelers. Despite the presence of the virus, the mortality rate of the nation remained “normal” until week 17. The five weeks of restrictions caused a noticeable dip in mortality rate from all causes. The researchers noted that this dip continued to week 42 (the last analyzed) despite the loosening of restrictions on many aspects of society. One should note that New Zealand had eliminated community spread by early June (week 24). In total, the mean weekly death rate was 11% lower than the average of the five preceding years from week 13 to 42.
Although they cannot say for sure why the low mortality rate has been maintained, the authors contend that social distancing prevented not only the spread of COVID-19 but also the spread of the seasonal flu. The paper offers another potential cause, claiming “alternative factors, such as fewer deaths from road traffic accidents, occupational causes, air pollution, and post-surgical complications, might also have had a role in the reduction of all-cause mortality.” Suggesting further research must be done to compare cause-specific deaths across years, a low mortality rate during a pandemic is certainly good news for New Zealand.
New Zealand has been praised for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, but the country's measures seem to have done even more by lowering the mortality rate to be expected in a “normal” year.
Researchers found the weekly mortality rate from mid-March to September was on average 11% lower than in previous years.
h/t: [IFL Science]