Who are the Victorians dying from coronavirus this year?

Key points

  • More than 70 percent of coronavirus deaths reported in Victoria in the last six months were among people who had not had their third dose of the vaccine.
  • Only 3 per cent of those who died had been immunised with their fourth dose.
  • A further 52 people (2 per cent) had one dose and 709 (33 per cent) had two doses when they died.
  • About 1500 of the coronavirus deaths from January 1 to June 28 were in Victorians aged over 80.

Almost three quarters of the more than 2000 Victorians who have died this year after contracting coronavirus had not received their third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

The new state government data comes as Australia inches closer to its 10,000th COVID-19 death, a grim milestone marked by rising coronavirus deaths in aged care.

St Basil’s aged care home in Fawkner was the site of one of Victoria’s deadliest coronavirus outbreaks in 2020.Credit:Justin McManus

Of the 2171 Victorians who have died from, or with, coronavirus to June 28 this year, 72 per cent had not had their third dose.

Only 3 per cent of those who died had been immunised with their fourth dose, while 37 per cent of deaths were among people who were not vaccinated at all, despite them representing less than four per cent of all Victorians aged over 12, data from the state’s health department shows.

Almost 70 percent, or 1514 coronavirus related deaths, from January 1 to June 28, were in Victorians aged over 80. The median age of those who died was 85.

Leading geriatrician Associate Professor Michael Murray said COVID-related deaths in aged care homes had now overtaken those in hospital intensive care units.

“We’re seeing more COVID-related deaths than the ICUs and disproportionately in culturally and linguistically diverse groups, particularly the Greek community, where the vaccination rate remains depressingly low,” Murray said.

Some of those who have died were partially unvaccinated due to their personal beliefs about COVID immunisation, but others had been advised by their adult children not to get vaccinated, Murray said.

Nationally, there were 1906 deaths from COVID-19 in aged care between January 1 and June 24, compared to 686 during 2020 and 231 in 2021. Four out of five aged care residents die without ever being transferred to hospital.

In Australia, which initially kept its death toll low with repeated lockdowns, the shift to daily double-digit deaths has been swift. Murray said coronavirus deaths were now hitting more than 1200 every month.

“But it’s just disappeared from the headlines. This is somebody’s mother, grandmother and somebody’s relative, so of course it’s very distressing for the individual and their family,” Murray said.

“It is the price of us opening up, of people in the community not being careful enough about trying to prevent transmission, or not getting vaccinated, or not getting their third or fourth dose which, in my view, increases everybody’s risk.”

The risk factor most likely to lead to death from COVID-19 is old age. In older people, the most severe symptoms from an Omicron infection are often not respiratory, instead it affects physical and cognitive function, causing delirium, for example, leading to an overall decline.

“The most challenging question really remains are they dying with COVID or from COVID?” Murray said. “They’re an older group, who are frail, and therefore it doesn’t take much to make their heart failure worse or their dementia worse when they get sick with coronavirus.”

Despite the high number of deaths in older Australians, the uptake of fourth booster shots in aged care remains slow. Only about 65 per cent of eligible residents have had their fourth vaccine dose.

“The Victorian data reflects what we have been saying all along about just how important boosters are,” infectious disease expert Professor Paul Griffin said.

“We are entering into another wave of COVID-19 where we’re really concerned about the impact on hospitals and intensive care. The best thing we can do is get our third or fourth dose, but it seems to be a message that people are not very receptive to at the moment.”

Nearly 90 per cent of Victorians over the age of 65 have received a third vaccine dose, while 46 per cent have had their fourth, winter dose.

Melbourne’s Austin Hospital intensive care director Stephen Warrillow said their ICU ward, once full of people critically ill with coronavirus, was now only treating “one or two” COVID patients a day.

Last week there were 23 Victorians with coronavirus in ICU. Of the Victorians who died in hospital with or due to COVID-19 between January and June 28, 296 were unvaccinated and 21 had received only one dose.

The disparity between daily deaths and ICU admissions is mostly due to the high numbers of deaths in aged care, after the removal of strict lockdown restrictions.

Interim chief executive of the Aged and Community Care Providers Association, Paul Sadler, said the booster program was in progress and working well overall.

“Many aged care homes are working with local GPs and pharmacies to arrange ongoing access to booster shots for residents who choose to be vaccinated,” he said.

However, he added it was vital the federal government urgently addressed aged care workforce shortfalls, to avoid staff shortages and interruptions during COVID or flu outbreaks.

Due to high rates of community transmission, Warrillow said he was now seeing more immunocompromised people infected with the virus being admitted to the ICU at the Austin, such as organ donor recipients. These patients were becoming seriously ill with the virus, despite taking all the precautions, including being up-to-date with their fourth and fifth booster shots.

“I’ve certainly personally cared for a number of patients recently who lead healthy, busy lives, and that’s the success of their organ transplant, but they’ve been terribly unlucky due to being immunosuppressed,” he said.

“It is a reminder to the community to get vaccinated and not to forget all the health advice we have learnt. It’s not just yourself that you’re protecting, but you’re also looking out for people who deserve our protection.”

Head of infectious diseases at Melbourne’s Western Health, Marion Kainer, said deaths among younger, otherwise healthy people, who have been vaccinated, remained exceptionally rare.

Often a death occurred in a younger, vaccinated person because they were immunocompromised in some way, such as a person undergoing cancer treatment.

“It’s a numbers game. If you’ve got a lot of disease and you’ve got a lot of people being infected then, in rare cases, you’re going to see these bad outcomes,” she said.

Australia’s death toll is a fraction of what has been recorded in similar countries around the world – in the UK, 10,000 had died from the virus by April 2020, and the same figure was recorded within two months this year.

Professor Nigel McMillan, program director of infectious diseases and immunology at Griffith University, said COVID is on track to become the second leading cause of death in Australia in 2022, behind coronary heart disease.

“The current 50 deaths per day is hardly noted and yet, it is more than twice the daily road toll,” McMillan said.

“We need our public health leaders to rethink the approach to this disease. We need Omicron-specific vaccines, wider use of antivirals, and we need to wear our masks much more.”

A Victorian health spokeswoman said staying up to date with COVID-19 vaccinations including third and fourth doses significantly reduces the chances of going to hospital or dying from COVID-19.

“Our heartfelt sympathies go out to all the families and friends who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 over the course of the pandemic,” she said.

“We now know that for those eligible, a fourth dose significantly reduces the chance of dying from COVID-19, compared with having three doses.”

She urged Victorians to wear a face mask indoors or when unable to physically distance, stay home when unwell and continue to get tested when they had symptoms.

Up until June 28 this year, 14,537 people have required treatment in Victorian hospitals for COVID-19-related illness during the reporting period. This represents just 0.76 per cent of the more than 1.9 million cases diagnosed this year. Of the cases admitted to hospital, 5 per cent were later admitted to ICU.

With Mary Ward

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