Why The Latest Covid Death Data Is Not All It Seems

If four in five adults over 16 are now vaccinated, why are deaths at their highest level since March?

Covid deaths recorded in the UK are at their highest level since March – but the statistics do not tell the full story.

There were 948 deaths reported in the seven days ending September 7, according to the official government dashboard. This is compared to 681 deaths reported in the previous seven-day period ending August 31. The increase of 267 deaths marks a 39.2% rise – the highest level in five months – but we shouldn’t panic just yet.

The figures may come as a surprise, particularly as four in five adults over the age of 16 are now vaccinated against coronavirus, according to the latest figures published by the UK’s four health agencies.

But Professor Paul Hunter, an expert in infectious diseases based at Norwich Medical School, UEA, says the uptick might be due to the way data is collected, rather than another surge in severe disease.

“Almost all of that apparent increase can be explained by delayed reporting of deaths over the bank holiday weekend,” he tells HuffPost UK. “We need to wait a week so the bank holiday effect is purged from the statistics to get a clearer understanding of what is happening.

“Are [deaths] increasing? Looking at the recent data by date of death, deaths may actually be falling, though I would need to wait another few days to be certain.”

Despite high vaccine uptake, there will inevitably continue to be some deaths linked to Covid-19, adds Dr Julian Tang, who’s a consultant virologist and honorary associate professor of respiratory sciences at the University of Leicester. This is because no vaccine is 100% effective.

“There seems to be a misunderstanding that whilst vaccines appear to work well at a population level – e.g. 90% protection against severe disease and death – that this does not translate to protection for everyone at an individual level, e.g. if 50 million people are now fully vaccinated, 10% (five million) might still experience more severe disease and death,” he tells HuffPost UK.

“With most people being vaccinated now, those being admitted and dying are most likely to be those already vaccinated.”

The Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at Queen Alexandra Hospital in Portsmouth, southern England.
ADRIAN DENNIS via Getty Images
The Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at Queen Alexandra Hospital in Portsmouth, southern England.

Dr Tang believes that we do not test people who’ve had the vaccine routinely enough to adequately monitor antibody responses, “so the vaccination status may not always indicate protection in a small percentage of people”.

“There is always a ~5% failure rate for any vaccine for various reasons: poor host immune responses, poor vaccine storage/transport conditions, ‘cold-chain failure’ [when vaccines are exposed to temperatures outside the manufacturer’s recommendations],” he says.

“Vaccine immunity wanes over time, this is no different with Covid-19 vaccines. Those who had their second dose more than six months ago are likely losing some of that immunity now. As antibody levels drop, the Delta variant is more able to cause infection, and in some cases, severe disease and death.”

The latest data also indicates that the average age of people dying from Covid has shifted compared to earlier in the pandemic. Professor Kevin McConway, emeritus professor of applied statistics at the Open University, says this is not surprising.

“It’s not surprising, for several reasons (vaccinations, changes in working patterns, the removal of lockdowns, and so on) that the people who, sadly, do die of reasons involving Covid-19, are on average younger than they were during the pandemic peak at the start of 2021,” he says.

“For the UK as a whole, in the most recent week, one in 23 of the death registrations mentioning Covid-19 were of someone aged under 45. Back in January and February this year, the corresponding figure was about one in 85.”

Vaccine take-up among young adults continues to be lower than among older age groups, with an estimated 72.7% of 18 to 29-year-olds in England having received one jab – behind Wales (76.7%) and Scotland (74.8%), but ahead of Northern Ireland (71.5%). Among over 50s, the take-up is closer to 95%.

Wales also leads the way for 16 and 17-year-olds, with an estimated 66.6% having had one dose of vaccine, well ahead of both Scotland (58.1%) and Northern Ireland (41.5%). More than half of 16 to 17-year-olds in England have also had their first jab.

Downing Street has admitted that Covid cases are likely to rise as the new school term gets underway. The prime minister’s official spokesperson said it is “fair to say” there could be an increase as children head back into the classroom.

Whether or not this will affect the number of Covid deaths in the UK remains to be seen. Getting double vaccinated remains the best way to protect yourself and your family.