Death rates for over-65s return to normal after successful Covid vaccine rollout

·5 min read
Older people have borne the brunt of deaths during the coronavirus crisis, but the vaccine rollout has led to a new trend emerging in mortality data - Yui Mok/PA Wire
Older people have borne the brunt of deaths during the coronavirus crisis, but the vaccine rollout has led to a new trend emerging in mortality data - Yui Mok/PA Wire

The successful Covid vaccination programme has created a two-tier pandemic in which death rates are now back to normal for the over-65s, but for younger people the situation is even worse than last year.

Death rates for younger people have worsened since the coronavirus vaccine rollout, but mortality levels for over-65s have returned to normal, creating a two-tier pandemic.

Since the start of the Covid crisis, there has been a clear distinction between the impact of coronavirus on older people and younger people.

Older, more vulnerable people have borne the brunt of the deaths, while younger, healthier, age groups have barely registered in the statistics.

However, the vaccination programme has led to a curious new pattern emerging.

Contrast between older and younger generations

Fewer younger people were vaccinated before the winter wave struck - Yui Mok/PA Wire
Fewer younger people were vaccinated before the winter wave struck - Yui Mok/PA Wire

Recent data from the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries (IfoA) has suggested that death rates for the over-65s are back to normal, with 2021 mortality close to the average for the last 10 years.

In contrast, for under-65s, mortality rates in 2021 are on track to surpass 2020 - and show no sign of slowing down.

For men, death rates this year are nearly nine per cent higher than the 10-year average, while for women they are nearly six per cent higher.

Experts say that for the over-65s, the big spike in deaths seen at the beginning of the year has been offset by fewer deaths than normal in the spring and summer.

It suggests those winter deaths were people who were already very old and sick, and were accelerated by a few weeks or months - a phenomenon known as morality displacement or harvesting.

Older people who were not ill were largely protected by the vaccine and, since the winter, death rates have fallen considerably in older people - so much so that currently they are no higher than would be expected in a normal year.

But there has been no such drop for the under-65s, suggesting that those who died in the winter wave would not have ordinarily died by now, and are likely to have lost many years of life. And things are not improving.

Delta variant likely to be behind the rise

The worsening situation for younger age groups this year is likely to be caused by the delta variant and because fewer younger people were vaccinated before the winter wave struck.

Latest figures from the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre show that the average age for a Covid patient in intensive care is now 54, compared to 60 last winter.

Cobus Daneel, chairman of the IFoA’s continuous mortality investigation (CMI) mortality projections committee, said: “We’ve seen a two-tiered effect.

“In the oldest population, mortality rates from other causes are well below what we would normally expect at that time of year

“This could be some mortality displacement, where deaths we would have expected to see in this period have been accelerated to the first wave.

“Remarkably, that is not the case for the under-65s, who have seen mortality increase still further this year.

“The main source of that increase was the second wave that we experienced at the start of 2021, and we think that may be due to the timing of the vaccination programme, the older people first, followed by the younger people after that.”

The CMI points out that, in the absence of the pandemic, mortality improvement rates may have seen 2021 falling below the 10-year average.

But it does still suggest that the vaccination programme has helped keep death rates on an even keel for older people.

“While the timing may have contributed to the two-tiered effect, vaccinating the more vulnerable first undoubtedly saved more lives overall and reduced strain on the NHS,” Mr Daneel added.

Booster jabs set to keep mortality rates down for older people

The rollout of the booster jab has caused case rates for over-90s to fall - David Cheskin/PA Wire
The rollout of the booster jab has caused case rates for over-90s to fall - David Cheskin/PA Wire

The booster programme is also likely to push the mortality rates down even further.

Case rates in the over-90s now appear to have peaked and are falling again, which may be the first hints of a booster effect. This will hopefully translate into lower death numbers in the coming weeks.

The importance of the vaccination programme was also highlighted by a recent analysis from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). It showed that although there was some mortality displacement last year, it was not enough to cancel out the huge number of deaths in the first wave.

Excess deaths peaked as high as 1,800 a day in early April and the dips in mortality never recovered enough to offset the impact.

Sarah Caul, of the ONS, said “There have been suggestions that the coronavirus pandemic has led to the deaths of many vulnerable people who would have otherwise been expected to die in the following days, weeks or months.

“However, analysis shows that while there is some evidence of this so-called mortality displacement among older age groups, it does not account for the significant excess mortality seen since the beginning of the pandemic.

“In fact, we are yet to see any evidence that deaths in those aged under 65 or in private homes would have likely occurred over the following weeks or months, as deaths in these age groups and settings continue to be well above normal levels.”

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting