COVID-19 deaths analysis shows importance of vaccines in saving lives

News article

30 September 2022

An analysis of deaths from COVID-19 in New Zealand shows being up to date with your vaccines is the single best way to reduce the risk of dying from COVID-19. 

Public Health Agency Deputy Director-General Dr Andrew Old says thanks to lower levels of community transmission early in the pandemic and high vaccination rates, New Zealand has had a lower rate of deaths from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic compared to many countries.

Most people that test positive for COVID-19 will experience a mild to moderate illness and be able to self-care at home before making a full recovery.  

‘But sadly, despite that, more than 2000 people have died from COVID-19, either as an underlying or contributing cause, and we remain committed to ensuring those most at risk of death from COVID-19 are prioritised in our response.’ 

As part of this, Te Manatū Hauora Ministry of Health has examined COVID-19 attributed deaths to better identify greatest risk factors for COVID-19 and help establish how these risks can be reduced.

This analysis is available on the Ministry’s website at COVID-19 Mortality in Aotearoa New Zealand: Inequities in Risk.

The analysis examined 1,797 COVID-19 deaths between 1 January and 26 August 2022, which had been attributed to COVID-19. This included 1,458 people of European or Other ethnicity, 158 Māori, 111 Pacific people, and 60 people of Asian ethnicity. 

It supports that, as well as age being a strong risk for death from COVID-19, there is excess risk for Māori and Pacific Peoples, people who are unvaccinated, those in higher deprivation and those with pre-existing health conditions.  

The analysis found:

  • Age is the single biggest determinant in the risk of death from COVID-19. 
  • Vaccination is one of the most effective steps people can take to reduce their risk of death from COVID-19. The analysis shows a 62% reduction in the risk of death from COVID-19 among people who had two or more doses compared to those who had received one dose or no doses. There is evidence that boosters further reduce the risk of death from COVID-19, and this will be the subject of future study. 
  • There was an increased risk of death from COVID-19 for Māori and Pacific People, who were respectively at 2.0 and 2.5 times greater risk compared to the European or Other group. While the risks of death were much lower for all groups under-60 than for older age groups, the inequity for Māori and Pacific people was more pronounced among under-60s, with the risk of death 3.7 and 2.9 times higher respectively. Of the 78 people under-60 who died from COVID-19, 35 were European and Other, 24 were Māori, 13 were Pacific People, and six were Asian people. 
  • There is increased risk for those in socio-economically deprived groups, with the most deprived 20% of New Zealanders having three times the risk when compared to the least deprived 20%. 429 COVID attributed deaths were people among the most deprived 20% of New Zealanders and 153 were people among the least deprived 20% of New Zealanders.
  • Having one or more pre-existing health condition was also a substantial factor in an increased mortality risk., especially for people under 60, associated with a 6.3 higher risk of death from COVID-19 compared to someone with no pre-existing health conditions. The analysis showed that of the 78 people under-60 whose deaths were attributed to COVID-19, 72 had a pre-existing health condition. 

‘This analysis shows that being up to date with your vaccinations not only helps protect yourself and your loved ones from severe disease, but it could save your life.’ 

However, it also shows the burden of COVID-19 has fallen unevenly across New Zealand. 

Some of this excess risk for Māori and Pacific people can be explained by higher rates of socio-economic deprivation, pre-existing conditions, and lower vaccination rates. Inequities in vaccination rates alone accounted for around a quarter of the excess risk for Māori and Pacific peoples. However, even controlling for these factors, the analysis shows Māori and Pacific people are still at a significant higher risk of death from COVID-19. 

‘Unfortunately, this does reflect broader long standing health inequities for Māori and Pacific, with poorer health access and outcomes across many measures. It is also similar to COVID-19 experience in many countries, including Australia, the United States and United Kingdom, where already vulnerable communities have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.’ 

‘These findings are not unexpected and our COVID-19 response throughout has been informed by understanding that the communities with the poorest health are also the most at risk from COVID-19.

Protecting Māori and Pacific people is an integral part of the ongoing COVID-19 response. The Ministry has always taken a collaborative and comprehensive approach, engaging at multiple levels to support Māori and Pacific communities stay safe. We continue to do this because we recognise the ongoing, intergenerational and inequitable vulnerability of these communities.

Te Manatū Hauora, Te Whatu Ora, and Te Aka Whai Ora will continue to engage with Māori through the National Iwi Chairs Forum, Māori health providers, community groups, and other organisations to inform the overall COVID-19 response, and ensure it promotes equitable outcomes for Māori.  

Steps being taken to better protect vulnerable groups as part of the COVID-19 response include: 

  • Health districts and Māori and Pacific providers are providing tailored outreach services, such as provision of after-hours, weekend services and increased number of vaccination sites, such as pharmacies, and pop-up clinics in community locations including marae and places of worship. 
  • The delivery of multiple vaccines at diverse vaccination sites is happening through a whānau-centred approach in partnership with health districts, Māori, and Pacific health providers.  
  • The vaccinator workforce is being expanded to build localised and culturally competent capacity to administer vaccines to people aged 5 and up. This will support relationship building at the local level and removes barriers for whanau accessing services. 
  • The Government has recently expanded access at a lower age of antiviral medicines and Pharmac has secured agreements to purchase 40,000 more antiviral medicine courses. Anyone over 65, Māori and Pacific people over 50, or anyone who meets Pharmac’s requirements, can now access these treatments in the early stages after contracting the virus.
  • There is work underway by all three health agencies – Manatū Hauora, Te Whatu Ora, and Te Aka Whai Ora – to encourage more eligible Māori and Pacific people to get their first booster.  
  • We are continuing with our targeted support to 10 communities around the country where vaccination rates are comparatively low. 
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