Additionally, flu deaths stretch out over about six months, whereas COVID-19 has led to more deaths in about two and a half months

By Julie Mazziotta
May 19, 2020 01:38 PM
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Funeral home workers load the casket of a person who died from COVID-19 into a waiting car
Misha Friedman/Getty

The new coronavirus, COVID-19, is more than “just another flu,” and is far more deadly, a new study finds.

A common argument against the stay-at-home orders for the new coronavirus, COVID-19, is that the seasonal flu comes around each year and kills the same number of people. Why, some people ask, are we shutting everything down for a virus that seems similar to what the U.S. experiences on an annual basis?

But health experts say that comparison is inaccurate — and new research supports that idea: A study found COVID-19 is actually killing 20 times more people a week than the flu, even during the deadliest weeks of the average flu season.

"Although officials may say that SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes COVID-19] is 'just another flu,' this is not true," wrote the authors, from Harvard Medical School and Emory University School of Medicine.

Part of the problem, the researchers explain in this new study, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, is that comparing deaths from the two viruses is “an apples-to-oranges comparison.”

The number of deaths in the U.S. from COVID-19 has been an actual count of people with confirmed cases of the virus, along with 5,600 probable cases, for a total of 90,295 deaths as of May 19.

But the number of flu deaths each year, compiled by the Centers for Disease Control, is always an estimate. While they officially track pediatric flu deaths, they do not keep an official count of adult flu deaths, and instead estimate by putting the laboratory-confirmed flu deaths into a mathematical model that then determines the likely number.

During the 2018-2019 flu season, for example, there were 7,172 laboratory-confirmed flu deaths, but based on the CDC model, the number of deaths is estimated to be between 26,339 to 52,664 deaths.

For this study, the researchers wanted the “apples-to-apples comparison” and instead pulled the more accurate death certificate data to get a count of the confirmed flu deaths per week over the last several seasons. Based on that, the average number of flu deaths per week between the 2013 to 2020 seasons was 752. In comparison, the average weekly death toll from COVID-19 is 20 times higher, the researchers found.

And during the worst weeks of each virus, the death toll from COVID-19 was far higher. The worst week of the flu, during the the particularly deadly 2017-2018 season, left 1,626 dead. During the peak week of COVID-19, the week ending April 21, 15,455 people died, 40 times more than the peak week of the flu.

Additionally, it is worth noting, the flu season typically spans from October to March, with the peak coming in January or February. It occasionally lasts until May, in longer seasons. That’s a span of around six months, and even if the flu has killed a similar number of people, it isn’t as concentrated as COVID-19, which has killed over 90,000 people in the U.S. in just two and a half months.

The researchers caveat that for both the flu and COVID-19, the number of deaths may have been undercounted. But the severity of COVID-19 makes it clear that this is a far more worrisome virus.

“The demand on hospital resources during the COVID-19 crisis has not occurred before in the US, even during the worst of influenza seasons,” they wrote. “Yet public officials continue to draw comparisons between seasonal influenza and SARS-CoV-2 mortality, often in an attempt to minimize the effects of the unfolding pandemic.”

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