EXPLAINED: Are deaths from Covid-19 in Denmark increasing?

Denmark's national infectious disease agency on Thursday published reports and information which addressed claims circulating on social media and elsewhere that the country is seeing increased deaths due to Covid-19.

A 2021 file photo of a Covid-19 patient in intensive care at Slagelse Hospital in Denmark
A 2021 file photo of a Covid-19 patient in intensive care at Slagelse Hospital in Denmark. Health authorities have responded to claims relating to current death rates with Covid-19. Photo: Ólafur Steinar Rye Gestsson/Ritzau Scanpix

Since broadly lifting Covid-19 restrictions at the beginning of February, the number of patients in Danish hospitals who have Covid-19 has increased markedly.

So has the registered number of deaths of people who died within 30 days after testing positive for Covid-19. On Thursday February 17th there were 44 deaths registered of people who had Covid-19 at the time of death or shortly before it.

That has resulted in debate – notably on social media – over Denmark’s decision to lift restrictions, with some international critics arguing the data suggests the decision may not have been the correct one.

READ ALSO: Danish disease agency hits back over country’s Covid deaths data

In response, the Danish infectious disease agency State Serum Institute (SSI) has responded to these critics to try to set the record straight about the numbers.

In a number of tweets, the agency stressed that an increase in hospital patients who have Covid-19, and people who have or recently had the disease when they died, reflected the high level of transmission of the virus in the community – but not a higher level of sickness or death caused by Covid-19.

Many people who are in hospital who have tested positive for Covid-19 are not in hospital because of the virus but for an unconnected reason, SSI points out.

Similarly, because community transmission is high, a person who died for a reason unrelated to Covid-19 is more likely to have had Covid-19 within the last 30 days before they died, the criteria for inclusion in the national Covid-19 death statistic.

SSI has also published English-language reports on its website in an effort to clarify the country’s Covid-19 data.

On Thursday, the agency posted a series of tweets which it said addressed “typical misinformation about (Danish) Covid-19 numbers”.

These include claims that criteria for admission to Danish ICUs with Covid-19 have changed and that an extremely high number are hospitalised because of Covid-19.

The tweets link to a report on the SSI website which attempts to rebut claims in more detail.

On its website, SSI states that the mortality rate [the overall number of deaths, ed.] in Denmark is not rising.

“During the last months of 2021, Denmark saw a higher number of deaths than expected in persons older than 75 years of age, which is anticipated to be caused by the Delta variant,” the agency writes.

“However, as from week 1, 2022, mortality has decreased in Denmark and now approaches the normal and expected level. This occurs in spite of an increased number of persons with a positive PCR-test in Denmark and is considered to reflect the fact that the dominant Omicron variant causes less mortality in persons infected with this variant compared to persons infected with previous variants,” it continues.

“It is correct that people still die from Covid-19, but because the Omicron variant causes less mortality than previous variants, an increasing number of those SARS-CoV-2 infected persons who die, die with Covid-19 and not because of Covid-19,” it said.

In a report published on February 3rd, SSI writes that “the overwhelming majority of deaths occur in persons who have underlying diseases. In these cases, Covid-19 will often have played an important part in the death, but the relative importance of Covid-19 and the other (underlying) diseases is difficult to assess.”

“Therefore, the daily 30-day Covid-19 mortality rate is a trade-off, not completely accurate, but available in near-real-time,” it writes.

That article includes a graph showing a decline in mortality in Denmark in late 2021 and the early weeks of 2022.

As such, the surge in cases caused by the Omicron variant has not immediately pushed up Denmark’s overall mortality.

Graphic: Statens Serum Institut

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Covid-19: Virus remains on downward trend in Denmark in latest report

The number of Covid-19 infections in Denmark is still declining, as has been the trend for some weeks.

Covid-19: Virus remains on downward trend in Denmark in latest report

In addition to confirmed cases, the number of PCR tests administered to check for the virus is also falling. Authorities recently announced that PCR testing capacity would be halved, before a strategy for testing next winter is announced later this year.

The continued falloff in cases was one of the trends noted in a new report from the infectious disease agency, State Serum Institute (SSI). The report is based on data from the most recent week.

During the period covered by the report, the number of new cases of Covid-19 fell by 18 percent, meaning 82 in 100,000 residents of Denmark tested positive for Covid-19.

The number of PCR tests fell by 14 percent during the same period, with around 7,000 tests administered each day.

“Transmission in the community is falling in general and across all age groups,” SSI medical head of department Rebecca Legarth told news wire Ritzau.

The decline in number of new recorded cases may be linked to the reduction in recorded number of hospital patients with a positive Covid test.

Last week saw the number of hospitalised people with Covid-19 fall by 23 percent. Not all people in hospital who have the virus are being treated for it, with their hospitalisation being for other reasons in many cases.

Denmark ended its Covid-19 restrictions in February and March, while health authorities also changed recommendations on when a PCR test should be taken.

In March, the Danish Health Authority changed its recommendations on when people with suspected Covid-19 should be tested for the coronavirus, with testing now only recommended if there is a “special medical reason” for doing so.