The question of how many people die in Israel should have been a simple answer

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What is more certain than death? Contrary to the confusing reports on the number of unemployed, which we analyzed here last week, the question of whether a person has died should be a simple statistical answer: yes or no. That is why many cling to the general death toll as a beacon of knowledge in the Corona period, when almost all the facts are in dispute.

Therefore, we were embarrassed in the face of a contradiction between the findings we published and the completely opposite report in “News 12” on the very same day. And an act that was so was. The Prime Minister tweeted two weeks ago that Israel is one of the few countries in which no excess mortality was recorded during the Corona days, meaning that no more people died than in an average year. It was based on a graph from the Financial Times – but the graph only came until mid-April. We examined data from the following months, and concluded that in the missing period “the excess mortality rate was about 10%.”

And here, a few hours later, Danny Kushmero presented a surprising report in “Ulpan Shishi”: Despite the corona, in June only 2,982 people died in Israel – “the lowest figure of deaths in June in the last five years – a decrease of 10%.” Was Kushmero wrong? Were we wrong?

So we did a house check. We set out to learn how mortality data are produced, and came to the conclusion that we have all sinned: the claims of abnormal mortality up or down were probably due to careless use of the data.

How are the dead born?

To officially die is not enough to lose heart rate. Between the last breath a person breathes and the time he appears in the statistical reports, a complex process takes place, the main intersection of which is the change of status in the population registry. The Population Registry is a huge file in which a record is dedicated to anyone who has ever held an Israeli identity number. One of the fields in this database indicates whether he is alive or dead.

The nature of the population registry limits any statistical report on which it is based: since it includes only those with an Israeli identity number, it does not have foreign residents, asylum seekers and other groups. The death of a foreign citizen is treated at his embassy, ​​and is absent from mortality statistics. On the other hand, Israeli citizens living abroad are included.

Bodies such as the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) and the Ministry of Health receive mortality records from the Population Registry to prepare reports for the public. The Population Authority, which manages the database, does not publish regular mortality updates to the public. They sometimes responded to media outlets that wanted fresh information, and this is how the mortality data was passed on to “Ulpan Shishi”.

The problem is that the fresher the information, the more partial it may be. Here is what should happen from the moment of death until registration in the database. A doctor first confirms the death in a document called a “death notice.” Now the announcement must find its way to the Population Authority which will issue an official death certificate. When death happens in a hospital, the staff updates the authority almost automatically. When it happens elsewhere, the message first reaches the Ministry of Health, through the regional bureaus, or the family itself applies for a death certificate. “The more intermediaries there are, the longer it takes,” Haddad explains. Only with the death certificate, death is updated in the database.

The CBS examines the population registry every week and begins a meticulous process of preparing mortality statistics. Among other things, Israelis deduct their living status while staying abroad, in order to leave only deaths that occurred in Israel. They reveal the findings on purpose only after a few weeks – because the early reports are not complete.

The reports of the death were premature

Freedom of information activist Guy Sommer checked with CBS officials how long it takes for mortality data to stabilize. For the experiment, the population registry was asked a uniform query, “How many people died in May 2020,” on several different dates. When they returned a week later, the number jumped to 3,354, and that too was not the end of the verse.

The time it takes for mortality to stabilize probably explains why less than 3,000 deaths were reported in Ulpan Shishi in June. Meanwhile, more than 300 deaths were added to the registry that month. Early reports from the Population Registry will always be missing reports.

The “whistle” finding, on the other hand – the one that talked about excess mortality between April and June – was not based on CBS data. Our numbers were taken from the same source used by the Financial Times to prepare the graph Netanyahu shared: These reports are mainly devoted to a careful summary of the cases of infection in countless diseases, but also include an update on the total number of deaths.

When you draw the mortality curve of the Ministry of Health versus that of the CBS, you find two things. One – the numbers are completely different. The other – while the curve of the CBS is relatively uniform, that of the Ministry of Health is very frantic, full of valleys and mountains.

The-death-data-of-the-health-ministry-more frenetic

One large ravine opens around April, and two hills rise in May and June. In some weeks, the numbers in 2020 are 20% higher than the average in previous years. Since the beginning of the year, the valleys and mountains have been less offset: first mortality-deficient and then excess mortality.

The question is whether these fluctuations happened in reality, or again stem from the data collection process. Unfortunately, until the issue closed, we could not get an explanation from the Ministry of Health about how they count dead and why they reach different results from the CBS. Perhaps this is related to the fact that the ministry can use not only updates from the population registry but also direct information from hospitals.

After deducting the distortions, no abnormal mortality was recorded

Naama Rotem, head of health at the CBS, is not thrilled by the strange difference between the data series, and assumes that they have mainly technical reasons. First, the weekly data are necessarily different because the CBS uses an “international week” that begins on Monday. Second, it is possible that the Ministry of Health does not deduct deaths abroad. But a third and more significant factor is that the epidemiological reports are published in almost real time, before the more complete CBS reports.

This fact may result in simulated fluctuations that will disappear in later reports. The peak of the closure happened by chance during the Passover holiday, and it is possible that the Population Authority and the Ministry of Health did not have time to register all the dead near their deaths. Sommer also mentions that seniors who tended to die in nursing homes were not always evacuated to hospital closures, which reported deaths earlier. In the revised documentation of this CBS this curve is made closer to the plain.

The corona did not cause excess mortality The corona did not cause excess mortality

Bottom line, the CBS does not today think that mortality rates since the start of the corona wave have been exceptional. When plotting the mortality rate per 1,000 people – to eliminate the effect of population growth – the curve in recent months is actually close to average. In his blog on The Marker website, 2020 has already opened on the right foot: this past winter was, by a slight margin, one of the two deadly winters in the current millennium.

for further reading:
“Excess mortality began just as Netanyahu’s graph ended” – Globes’ whistle, 17.7.2020
“Despite the corona: the number of deaths in Israel in June – the lowest in the last 5 years” – News 12, 17.7.2020
“Corona monitoring: the updated data with the opening of the closure in the countries of the world” – Financial Times
Weekly and periodic epidemiological reports – Ministry of Health
Mortality and Life Expectancy – Central Bureau of Statistics

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