The Use of Cremation Data for Timely Mortality Surveillance During the COVID-19 Pandemic in Ontario, Canada: Validation Study
JMIR Public Health and Surveillance
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Background: Early estimates of excess mortality are crucial for understanding the impact of COVID-19. However, there is a lag of several months in the reporting of vital statistics mortality data for many jurisdictions, including across Canada. In Ontario, a Canadian province, certification by a coroner is required before cremation can occur, creating real-time mortality data that encompasses the majority of deaths within the province. Objective: This study aimed to validate the use of cremation data as a timely surveillance tool for all-cause mortality during a public health emergency in a jurisdiction with delays in vital statistics data. Specifically, this study aimed to validate this surveillance tool by determining the stability, timeliness, and robustness of its real-time estimation of all-cause mortality. Methods: Cremation records from January 2020 until April 2021 were compared to the historical records from 2017 to 2019, grouped according to week, age, sex, and whether COVID-19 was the cause of death. Cremation data were compared to Ontario's provisional vital statistics mortality data released by Statistics Canada. The 2020 and 2021 records were then compared to previous years (2017-2019) to determine whether there was excess mortality within various age groups and whether deaths attributed to COVID-19 accounted for the entirety of the excess mortality. Results: Between 2017 and 2019, cremations were performed for 67.4% (95% CI 67.3%-67.5%) of deaths. The proportion of cremated deaths remained stable throughout 2020, even within age and sex categories. Cremation records are 99% complete within 3 weeks of the date of death, which precedes the compilation of vital statistics data by several months. Consequently, during the first wave (from April to June 2020), cremation records detected a 16.9% increase (95% CI 14.6%-19.3%) in all-cause mortality, a finding that was confirmed several months later with cremation data. Conclusions: The percentage of Ontarians cremated and the completion of cremation data several months before vital statistics did not change meaningfully during the COVID-19 pandemic period, establishing that the pandemic did not significantly alter cremation practices. Cremation data can be used to accurately estimate all-cause mortality in near real-time, particularly when real-time mortality estimates are needed to inform policy decisions for public health measures. The accuracy of this excess mortality estimation was confirmed by comparing it with official vital statistics data. These findings demonstrate the utility of cremation data as a complementary data source for timely mortality information during public health emergencies.