Since the beginning of the pandemic, Malaysia has reported Covid-19 deaths solely based on the number of fatalities confirmed on a particular day, even if they may have occurred days earlier.
In the wee hours of Sept 11, however, the Health Ministry began reporting a new metric – Covid-19 deaths reported according to the actual date of death. This is in addition to the earlier practice of reporting Covid-19 deaths according to the reporting date.
According to ministry officials at a media briefing on Sunday, the seven-day average number of deaths according to the date of death of the deceased - as opposed to the date when the death is reported - gives a better indication of Malaysia’s Covid-19 situation.
Essentially, for the new metric, newly verified Covid-19 deaths will be "backdated" to the actual date when those deaths occurred.
But how much difference does it make? How far off-the-mark were the previous statistics?
The seven-day average of Covid-19 deaths according to the actual date of death is depicted as a black line on the ministry’s CovidNow website. The line runs alongside thin blue columns indicating the number of deaths each day according to the reporting date of those deaths.
More detailed information is updated daily on its Github data repository for those who wish to take a deep dive into the data behind those charts.
By using the data posted on Github to compare the new and old metrics side-by-side and calculating the difference, Malaysiakini found that - for most of the pandemic - the number of reported deaths is very close to the number of actual deaths that occurred that day.
While there are some fluctuations, the old system appears to have held up well, even during the Covid-19 surge that followed the Sabah state election last year.
On average, the reported cases each day differed from the actual number of Covid-19 deaths that day by only a few cases.
However, the situation began to change around July and reach a peak in early August.
The timing coincides with some of the worst parts of the Covid-19 outbreak in the Klang Valley, where cases rose from around 3,000 per day at the beginning of the month to over 9,000 per day by end of the month.
An increase in cases was also recorded in many other states throughout Malaysia, though to a lesser extent than those seen in the Klang Valley.
At this point, a backlog began to build in Malaysia’s reporting of Covid-19 deaths.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, the data reveals that Malaysia had its deadliest day in the pandemic on Aug 10 when 359 people succumbed to Covid-19.
However, only 201 deaths were reported at the time. This is an underreporting of 158 deaths due to the backlog.
In Selangor, meanwhile, deaths per day rose to a peak of 163 on Aug 3, though only 88 deaths were reported at the time. This is an undercount of 75 deaths.
According to Health director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah’s special officer Dr Faizul Nizam Abu Salim during a briefing on Sunday, this backlog in reporting is being resolved, now that the Covid-19 situation has eased.
The ministry is aiming to clear the backlog this week.
“They (hospital staff) have more time now. They are a little more ease in terms of their burden of cases. So they have the opportunity to do so, to report (and) get things (done) faster.
“So don’t be surprised if you were to see (in the) next few days, a lot of tall horizontal lines for the blue bar (reported deaths),” Faizul said, referring to the chart on the CovidNow website.
The surge in reported cases is reflected in this analysis, where the number of reported deaths is far in excess of the actual number of deaths. The inflexion point seems to have begun in late August.
On Sept 11, for example, Malaysia reported a record-high of 592 deaths, but the actual number of deaths identified for that day so far is 122. However, the latter number can still change, as that date is still relatively recent and the backlog is still being cleared.
For now, the average number of "actual deaths" that occurred over the past week is 104 per day up to yesterday.
The Health Ministry is currently implementing changes to its reporting of Covid-19 deaths to ensure more timely reporting.
In addition, it plans to deter future delays by imposing a time limit for hospitals to report Covid-19 deaths.