Western Australia has so far dodged the most severe impacts of the pandemic despite the rest of the country recording much higher than expected deaths from COVID-19, cancer, dementia and diabetes.
Western Australia made up just one of those deaths due to remaining largely COVID-free until January 2022, when an Omicron outbreak seeded by a returned traveller eventually led to mass community spread and 9301 cases over the same period.
To April 30, WA had recorded around 386,000 cases in WA in 2022, and 139 deaths – although only around 30 were deemed to be caused by COVID-19, according to the ABS, representing a direct cause death ratio of around 1 in every 13,000 cases.
Burnet Institute epidemiologist Mike Toole said the state’s delay to live with the virus and its high vaccination rates meant WA was charting its own course when it came to the impacts of the pandemic.
I would expect a spike in deaths in WA in June, but going by the trend so far, it won’t be as dramatic as it has been in Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales, he said.
The number of deaths and the rate of deaths in WA is much lower in than the eastern states. In Victoria, for a long time now, 1. 5 per 1000 cases ended up in a death. In New South Wales it’s 1. 2 per 1000, whereas WA is only a third of that at 0. 36 deaths per 1000 cases – that’s a huge difference.
It might be because hospitals are less stressed, the other outstanding difference is WA’s rate of third-dose boosters exceeds 80 per cent. In Victoria, it’s about 68 per cent and in Queensland, it’s just over 50 per cent, and they’ve had a high death rate in the last few months.
As a nation, along with COVID-19, deaths from cancer, dementia and diabetes were also much higher than expected in the first two months of the year, while WA continued to track as normal, if not slightly below its typical death rates for the conditions.
Toole said increases in dementia and diabetes deaths were likely due to pressures on the aged care system which have accumulated over the past two years of the pandemic, while the increase in cancer deaths could be due to people not accessing healthcare as they usually would during extended lockdowns.
We’ve heard a lot of anecdotes of people postponing getting screening, and so late diagnosis means a poorer prognosis, he said.
Australia’s mortality rates show COVID-19 did not result in excess deaths in 2020 or 2021, but mortality has spiked since the Omicron wave.
In the first two months of the year, COVID ranked fourth as the cause of death nationally after cancer, dementia and cardiac disease. In January, it was number two.
The head of Melbourne University’s School of Population Health, Nancy Baxter, said the higher national mortality rates due to COVID-19 and dementia indicated WA would likely experience more deaths in these categories soon.
I think this will become very clear in the next month or two when we see how COVID-19 has impacted the WA health system overall, she said.
WA eased almost all restrictions when it had a high number of cases, and that of course led to a second peak so one of my concerns is the state is going to plateau at a very high number of cases.
That could see an already strained healthcare system be challenged, especially going into winter with the flu season.
In the first five months of WA’s 2022 COVID wave, nearly 30 per cent of the population, or 745,000 people, contracted the virus, with 255 deaths recorded.
The majority of deaths occurred outside the hospital setting in aged and palliative care settings, with 49 COVID-positive patients being admitted to intensive care to May 8 this year.
And while hospitalisation and intensive care numbers are significantly below predictions, the number of cases has exceeded
Pathwest’s VirusWAtch report showed there were 23 hospital admissions in WA for flu-like illness [which includes COVID-19] in the week ending May 22, which was an increase on previous weeks but still average for this time of year – despite the pandemic.
The state government has made the flu vaccination free in an attempt to stem expected hospital presentations into a health system already strained from staff shortages and record ambulance ramping.