Excess deaths in Spain’s second wave: 23,000 since July

Data from the National Statistics Institute show that there continues to be a discrepancy between the official number of coronavirus victims and the unexpected fatalities recorded in civil registries

Health workers transport a patient in Madrid.
Health workers transport a patient in Madrid.olmo calvo

During the second wave of the coronavirus in Spain, there have been 23,144 more deaths compared to the same period last year. In the last month alone, the number of excess deaths has risen to more than 8,500, according to the National Statistics Institute (INE) based on data from Spain’s civil registries.

The graph shows the difference between the Health Ministry’s official coronavirus death toll and the excess deaths recorded by the civil registries. Since July, there have been more than 23,000 excess deaths and 13,000 official Covid-19-related fatalities – a difference of 10,000.

Several factors may explain the discrepancy between the number of unexpected fatalities and the number of official coronavirus victims. On the one hand, the ministry only counts victims who tested positive for coronavirus. But at this point in time, there should be few people dying without a test, in contrast with the situation in March, when only individuals with clear symptoms were getting checked for the virus.

It is also possible that the information released by the ministry is incomplete or not up to date. It is a known fact that the SiViES system used by regional authorities to send data to the Health Ministry shows half as many Covid-19 hospitalizations as the count made by the actual hospitals. A similar problem could partly explain the difference between the 13,000 deaths relayed by SiViES and the 23,144 excess deaths observed by civil registries across Spain compared with the same period last year.

A third possibility is that the excess mortality includes deaths from other causes. This could include individuals whose illnesses went undiagnosed during the crisis or who did not receive the treatment they might have in other circumstances. These deaths would show up as excess mortality, but would logically not figure in the official Covid-19 death toll. However, while not part of the Covid-19 death count, they could be attributed to the health crisis the virus has caused.

We also know that the mortality rate is rising year on year by about 0.8%. This would account for about 800 excess deaths since July and 3,000 for the whole year.

Evolution since March

The graph shows the daily evolution of official deaths from the coronavirus, as reported by the Health Ministry, and the excess recorded in the civil registries compared to the previous year, based on INE data:

The most salient aspect of the graph shows the excess of 47,000 deaths recorded in the spring during the first wave of the pandemic. Again, it is clear the official figures arrived late. The civil registries counted thousands of deaths in March that were only later added to the official toll. The INE statistics, published every two weeks since June, show how the Health Ministry continued to add deaths in May and June to the official toll that had been recorded earlier.

There is also a peak in early August when an undetermined volume of deaths from the coronavirus could well have coincided with the impact of a heatwave, which is a common cause of peaks in mortality. According to the Carlos III Health Institute, high temperatures may have caused up to 2,000 deaths during the course of two to three weeks around early August, the same figure as in 2019.

There has been no return to normality since that excess was detected in early August. More deaths have been recorded than in the same period in previous years. According to the INE, there have been nearly 71,000 excess deaths since March, when the pandemic began. The official coronavirus death toll, however, stands at 44,374 as of Thursday.

Regional differences

The impact of the second wave is also being noted in Spain’s regions, the majority of which have an excess mortality rate of more than 10%. The table shows the excess deaths recorded in their civil registries with respect to the previous year (expressed as absolute numbers, as percentages and per 100,000 inhabitants). Also included is the official death toll from the Health Ministry.

The figures are even worse if we go back to March. In Madrid, while three people would have been expected to die during this period in normal circumstances, five have died this year. In Castilla-La Mancha, there have been three deaths for every two expected victims, and in Catalonia, seven deaths for every five expected.

The data confirms that the excess deaths recorded during the current crisis cannot be compared to any other event that has happened in recent years. Heatwaves attributed to around 2,000 excess deaths in 2019 and 800 to the year before that. In January 2019, there was also a flu outbreak, which could have accounted for the excess of 3,000 deaths in that period. But none of these figures compare to the 71,000 excess deaths Spain has recorded since March.

Excess deaths in other countries

According to data collected by the Oxford University website Our World In Data, which is updated every two weeks, Spain has one of the worst excess death rates this year out of around 30 countries, along with others like Italy, United Kingdom, United States, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Muertes observadas y media de 2015-2019

English version by Heather Galloway.

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