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Is COVID-19 deadlier than the flu?

flu vs covid death rate pandemic
Photo via Official U.S. Navy Page/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
  • This story is regularly updated for relevance. Last updated: June 9, 2021

COVID-19 has taken more lives than the past five flu seasons combined, yet shortly after President Donald Trump contracted the novel coronavirus, he claimed on social media that it’s “far less lethal” than the flu. But the flu vs COVID death rate tells quite a different story.

“Flu season is coming up! Many people every year, sometimes over 100,000, and despite the Vaccine, die from the Flu. Are we going to close down our Country? No, we have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with Covid, in most populations far less lethal!!!” Trump wrote before the post was removed on Facebook and flagged as misinformation on Twitter. 

Beginning around October, flu season typically lasts six to seven months each year. In the 2018-19 flu season, there were about 34,000 flu-related deaths in the U.S., according to the CDC.

As of early January 2021, COVID-19 had claimed more than 400,000 American lives since the pandemic began in March with a mortality rate of about 1.8% (as of mid-May, that number had surpassed 580,000). That’s nearly equal to the number of people who die from strokes, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, flu, and pneumonia combined.

In one Texas city, the COVID-19 deaths in 2020 have outnumbered the combined flu deaths from 2005-18. In Pennsylvania, research showed that the death rate for people in the state who had to be hospitalized with the coronavirus in the first few months of the pandemic was 16.3%. Meanwhile, the death rate for those hospitalized with the flu was 3%.

The CDC said there were about 65,000 flu cases reported in the U.S. during the 2019 flu season. The 2020 flu season only saw 2,038 cases. Alabama’s statewide flu rate dropped from 3.29% to 1.32%, and COVID killed more Alabamians in one year than flu did in the past decade. In the U.K., there were no reported flu cases in the first two months of 2021. In New York, flu cases dropped by 97% from the previous season.

According to the Washington Post, 195 children died from the flu during the 2019-20 season. In 2020-21, only one died.

As the Wall Street Journal noted, influenza has “become virtually invisible.” Or as Greg Poland, a flu expert at the Mayo Clinic, told Scientific American, “There’s just no flu circulating.”

To former CDC Director Robert Redfield, these numbers paint an irrefutable reality. “So to me, that means it’s a much more deadly virus. Is it because it’s new and it does overwhelm the body differently? Probably so, but that’s the reality. Right now we are dealing with a very deadly infection,” he told federal legislators. 

Dr. Cliff Martin, chief medical officer of three OSF HealthCare hospitals in western Illinois, said the infections are comparable in the way the body initially responds to them with symptoms such as fevers, aches, and coughs. From there, however, the typical flu and the coronavirus can take vastly different courses. Where the flu tends to get milder after a few days, those with serious cases of COVID-19 can see lasting impacts.

“Each year when we see that (flu), we see that normal progression of what we call ICU progression—two or three days in ICU and they start to improve; maybe go to a less intensive care bed for a little while and then home where with folks with COVID-19, sometimes we see weeks on end of needing ICU care and then ultimately sometimes, lives are lost,” Martin said.

Furthermore, many coronavirus patients report lingering symptoms such as loss of taste, smell, and appetite. That can also result from the flu, but the deep toll the coronavirus can take on the body is the key thing separating it from the flu besides its higher mortality rate. 

The coronavirus and the typical flu are similar in that human precaution can go a long way in reducing infection rate. Martin suggested that coronavirus precautions like masks and travel restrictions are likely reasons why flu cases are in decline this year across the Southern Hemisphere.

In mid-November 2020, the CDC said that flu activity in the U.S. was lower than normal but that it could still increase in the coming months (in North Carolina, one report said flu deaths were down 89% in 2020). In fact, there was so little flu that some believe that certain strains might have gone extinct. It’s also still possible to get the common cold.

By early January, the CDC said the country was, thus far, avoiding a twindemic, where the coronavirus and influenza would wreak havoc at the same time. “Overall flu activity is low, and lower than we usually see at this time of year,” said Dr. Daniel B. Jernigan, director of the influenza division of the CDC, told the New York Times. “I don’t think we can definitively say there will be no twindemic; I’ve been working with flu for a long time, and I’ve been burned. But flu is atypically low.”

But as mask mandates continue to be dropped in the U.S. as more and more people get vaccinated, don’t be surprised if flu and common cold rates begin to climb once again.

Sources: CNN, OSF Healthcare, CDC


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