BC’s city-by-city COVID death toll revealed

Data obtained by The Current gives first look at breakdown of deaths for each British Columbia city.

By Tyler Olsen | June 29, 2022 |5:00 am

COVID has killed at least 400 Fraser Valley residents—including 166 people in Abbotsford, 109 in Langley, and 72 in Chilliwack, according to new community-level data exclusively obtained by The Current. And an analysis of provincial death statistics suggests the toll has likely been much higher, especially during the Omicron wave.

Abbotsford was the hardest-hit in the region—and one of the most-affected cities in BC—with 166 recorded deaths between March 2020 and April 2022. Only Vancouver, Surrey, and Burnaby saw more. Among communities with at least 50 deaths, only Prince George, West Vancouver, and Burnaby had higher per-capita rates than Abbotsford.

Langley, Chilliwack, and Mission each had significantly fewer deaths and a much lower death rate than Abbotsford. In the Fraser Valley, only Hope and Agassiz had a death rate close to that of Abbotsford. Eight people died in Hope of COVID, where infection rates were regularly among the highest in the valley. Nine Agassiz residents perished.

Provincially, no community had death rates close to those seen in several Northern BC towns. In places like Dawson Creek, Burns Lake, and Fort. St. James, the virus killed as many as one out of every 400 citizens—and potentially many more. Other places with high death tolls include Prince Rupert, White Rock and Oliver—places with large senior populations and major care home outbreaks.

The city death figures have not been publicly released by the BCCDC; The Current submitted a freedom of information request in early April, but the data was delayed and delivered just last week. The figures sparked our look at non-COVID death figures that show a staggering number of local deaths over the winter, as the Delta wave peaked and the Omicron variant hit.

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Three factors

The data obtained by The Current is the best look yet at how the pandemic affected specific local towns and cities. By comparing the rate of deaths in various communities, it’s possible to see which towns and cities were the hardest hit, and find uniting factors between them.

COVID is known to have killed 3,000 people across BC from the beginning of the pandemic through April. (While other data suggests the toll could be even higher, those 3,000 deaths are those in which COVID was determined to be a causal factor. In other words, the person would not have died at that time if they had not contracted the virus. Since April, health officials have been reporting deaths of people who have had COVID, whether or not it is a factor in the person’s death. That was not the case before April.)

In a quirk of the province’s much-criticized reporting system, those 3,000 deaths have only been officially declared on a health region basis or on a hyper-local outbreak level. There has been no official accounting of the toll on individual municipalities.

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Although the largest cities predictably have the most deaths, there is significant difference in per-capita rates. Those reflect the likelihood that any individual perished from COVID. The cities and towns with the highest death rates generally fit one (or more) of three categories: smaller communities (like Oliver and Prince Rupert) with a care home that sustained a severe and deadly outbreak; regions with high numbers of non-native English speakers (Burnaby/Abbotsford); and communities with low vaccination rates (Fort St. James/Burns Lake).

In the Fraser Valley, Abbotsford, Agassiz, and Hope had the highest death rates. Mission and Langley had the lowest rates.

See a provincial graph, with a note on data

Although the data leaves significant room for interpretation of rates for some rural communities, Fort St. James and Burns Lake would have among the highest COVID death rates in the entire provinces, magnitudes more than even hard-hit cities like Abbotsford.

Twenty-eight people died in the two communities, which have some of the lowest vaccination rates in BC, with less than three-quarters of the population getting shots. Conservatively, one of every 400 people in the communities died from COVID in the towns. On the upper end, the rate exceeded one of every 150 people.

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Hundreds more deaths

Although the last Omicron variant was considered by many milder than precedents, waning immunity and the extreme spread of the virus made the winter wave the deadliest of all. Other research has also suggested that the true death toll of the pandemic could be much greater than the official tally collected by health officials.

That can be seen in overall death numbers collected by BC’s Vital Statistics agency.

The COVID-specific death numbers released to The Current are for the entire pandemic and do not include month-by-month tallies. so it’s not clear when during the pandemic the death actually occurred. However, The Current was able to look at the numbers for deaths of all causes, which show a massive spike in the number of people who died last winter.

The Current analyzed those figures, compared them to previous death rates, and factored in seasonal variations for when people die. (Between 2010 and 2019, 20% more people died in January than June.)

The number of deaths was elevated before the pandemic—the toxic drug crisis is likely a major factor, as is the increasing and aging population. But the number of deaths has increased at an unprecedented rate since the start of 2021.

The sharpest increase began in June, when the Delta variant began to spread rapidly. The rate peaked and plateaued over the winter as Omicron took hold.

Between December and February, 1,321 people residents of the Fraser Valley died. That’s more than 30% above the typical number of deaths for that time of year: in a pre-COVID year, one could expect around 900 deaths. In February alone, 440 deaths were recorded; usually around 300 people die in the Fraser Valley that month.

Abbotsford, the Fraser Valley city with the highest COVID death toll, was responsible for much of that change. Normally the city would see about 107 deaths in February. This year, 161 people died.

As the Omicron surge has subsided, the number of deaths has also started to drop, though they remain 15% to 20% higher than pre-pandemic. Other analyses have also shown significantly more deaths than officially reported as due to COVID.

Whether the death rates subside further or see a resurgence may depend on the impact of further variants.

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Note on the data

1 The data isn’t perfect: to determine the rate of deaths, the BCCDC’s release suggested using BC Stats to find the population for individual municipalities. That, however, left it unclear whether those living in rural areas outside of municipal boundaries were included in death statistics but not the population used to determine death rates. To compensate, we have calculated two separate rates for most towns by using both the municipality population and the population of larger health service delivery areas that include rural places outside of municipalities. (You can see the difference between the two rates below. The number displayed uses the municipality’s population.)

That creates a spread in rates for towns that serve large rural populations. The rate for a place like Agassiz varies from 83 to 136 deaths per 100,000, depending on whether outlying areas are factored into the calculation. (Deaths per 100,000 is how the rate is calculated. It allows for the comparison of towns of different sizes. Agassiz had nine deaths attributed to COVID.)

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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