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Tokyo Mortality Rose in April at Height of Virus Pandemic

Bloomberg logoBloomberg 6/11/2020 Gearoid Reidy and Marika Katanuma

(Bloomberg) --

Tokyo saw more deaths than usual in April, the month when coronavirus cases in the city peaked.

The hardest-hit Japanese city, Tokyo saw 10,107 deaths from all causes in the month, according to data released Thursday by the Metropolitan Government. That’s almost 12% higher than the average of the previous four years for which data are available, and 7% higher than the same month in 2019.

The mortality data suggests there were around 1,000 more deaths from all causes in the month than on average. The data does not give the causes of death. Tokyo has a population that is both aging and growing, surpassing 14 million for the first time as the total increased by 0.6%, or 80,000 people, from a year earlier. Deaths also rose in 2019 from the previous year by 6%, long before the virus surfaced.

The city officially reported just over 100 deaths from coronavirus in April. Cases in Tokyo rose significantly that month, when the capital began to see around 200 infections a day, leading the government to declare a national state of emergency. That succeeded in flattening the curve and the emergency was lifted in the capital on May 25, with business restrictions set to be eased further as early as Thursday.

Some Excess © Bloomberg Some Excess

A total of 311 have died from the disease to date in Tokyo, with another 256 hospitalized as of Thursday, 22 of them in serious condition.

“It’s possible that the number of deaths from the coronavirus have been underestimated,” said Mitsuyoshi Urashima, a professor in molecular epidemiology at the Jikei University School of Medicine in Tokyo. Some of the additional deaths recorded in April may be been people who died without being tested for the virus, he said.

Limited Testing

Japan has weathered the pandemic with far fewer deaths and confirmed infections that most other leading economies. President Donald Trump has questioned whether the U.S death count from the virus, which stands at about 113,000, had been overstated but health experts say the tally may actually be higher than that, using data such as overall morality figures. The true scale of the impact of the virus is still unclear, with various countries using differing methods of calculation and classification.

Although Japan has had the fewest number of confirmed Covid-19 infections and related deaths of any Group of Seven leading nation, it has also taken a deliberate approach to limit testing for the virus. That’s raised questions about whether the outbreak may have been worse than reported. Unfounded claims that the nation suppressed the true number of cases in the early days of the outbreak have dogged authorities throughout the pandemic.

An antibody test by Softbank Group on 40,000 employees and families and medical workers found 191 cases, for a positive test rate of 0.43%, with only eight of more than 19,000 workers at its stores having been in contact with the virus. It’s the largest test of its kind undertaken so far in Japan.

“Even factoring in the increasing population of over-75 residents, there still appears to be some excess mortality,” said Corey Wallace, an assistant professor at Kanagawa University who has been tracking the data. “The exact amount is harder to estimate as mortality varies year to year for many reasons. It could well be that the 104 official April Covid-19 deaths explains all of April’s excess. At worst, it is very unlikely to be more than 500.”

Read more on Japan’s response to the virus:
Japan Minister Says Higher ‘Cultural Standard’ Helped Beat VirusArchitect of Japan’s Virus Strategy Sees Flaw in West’s ApproachTokyo’s Bar Hosts to Get PCR Tests as Japan Tries to Quash VirusTokyo Issues Virus Alert to Residents After New Cases Spike

Excess mortality has been used as a method to grasp the true scale of the fatalities from the outbreak. The figure includes those who died without being tested for the virus as well as those who may have died of other causes but couldn’t seek treatment due to an overloaded medical system.

It also reflects the impact the pandemic has had on reducing mortalities from other causes, such as traffic accidents and suicides, which have both dropped. Mortality data tracker Euromomo found “substantial” excess mortality in many countries in Europe during the pandemic.

The capital saw 33,106 deaths in the three months through March, 0.4% fewer than the average of the previous four years for the same period, while no excess mortality was seen in the first three months of the year outside of Tokyo. Nationwide data will be released later in June.

(Updates throughout with quotes)

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