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COVID-19 is killing 20 times more people per week than flu does, new paper says

An image showing 35 coffins stored in a warehouse in Ponte San Pietro, near Bergamo, Lombardy, Italy, on March 26, 2020, prior to be transported to another region to be cremated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
An image showing 35 coffins stored in a warehouse in Ponte San Pietro, near Bergamo, Lombardy, Italy, on March 26, 2020, prior to be transported to another region to be cremated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Image: © PIERO CRUCIATTI/AFP via Getty Images)

If there was any doubt that the new coronavirus isn't just "a bad flu," a new paper lays that myth to rest. The study authors found that in the U.S. there were 20 times more deaths per week from COVID-19 than from the flu in the deadliest week of an average influenza season.

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

School of Medicine, wrote in their paper, published today (May 14) in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

Related: How does the new coronavirus compare with the flu?

Ever since the new coronavirus was discovered in early January, people have compared it with the flu, pointing out that influenza causes tens of thousands of deaths every year in the U.S. alone. Indeed, during the current flu season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there were up to 62,000 flu deaths in the U.S. from October 2019 through April 2020.

At a glance, this may appear similar to the toll of COVID-19, which as of early May, had caused about 65,000 U.S. deaths. (As of Thursday, May 13, the number of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. was more than 82,000, according to Johns Hopkins University.)

But this doesn't match what health care providers are seeing on the frontlines of the pandemic, particularly in hot zones (such as New York City), "where ventilators have been in short supply and many hospitals have been stretched beyond their limits," the authors said.

This comparison is flawed because the CDC estimates of flu deaths are just that — estimates rather than raw numbers. The CDC does not know the exact number of people who become sick with or die from the flu each year in the U.S. Rather, this number is estimated based on data collected on flu hospitalizations through surveillance in 13 states.On the other hand, reported COVID-19 deaths are actual counts of people who died from COVID-19, not estimates. In other words, comparing estimates of flu deaths with raw counts of COVID-19 deaths is like comparing "apples to oranges," the authors said.

So for the new study, the researchers looked at actual counts of flu deaths per week, and compared those with counts of COVID-19 deaths.

Related: Coronavirus in the US: Latest COVID-19 news and case counts

Based on data from death certificates, during the deadliest week of flu season over the last several years, the counted number of U.S. deaths due to flu ranged from 351 during the 2015 to 2016 flu season to 1,626 during the 2017 to 2018 flu season, the authors said. The average number of flu deaths during the week of peak flu mortality in recent seasons (from 2013 to 2020) was 752 deaths.

In contrast, for COVID-19, there were 15,455 deaths reported in the U.S. during the week ending April 21 (the highest weekly death toll during the pandemic so far)  the authors said 

That means that the number of COVID-19 deaths for the week ending April 21 was about 10- to 40-fold higher than the number of influenza deaths for the most lethal week of the past seven flu seasons. That peak COVID-19 weekly death count is about 20 times higher than the average weekly peak flu death count, the authors said.

The authors note that their analysis has some limitations, including that the number of COVID-19 deaths may be undercounted because of limitations with testing for SARS-CoV-2 and false-negative test results. In addition, the authors point out that adult flu deaths are not required to be reported to public health authorities in the way that COVID-19 deaths are, potentially undercounting flu deaths as well. 

Still, "our analysis suggests that comparisons between SARS-CoV-2 mortality and seasonal influenza mortality must be made using an apples-to-apples comparison, not an apples-to-oranges comparison," the authors concluded. "Doing so better demonstrates the true threat to public health from COVID-19."

Originally published on Live Science.  

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  • DPBF
    Twenty times? Most of the deaths of persons with COVID are due to secondary pneumonia, and even the CDC has pointed out the conflation of pneumonia deaths with COVID deaths.

    Last year, 35 million Americans contracted the flu, nearly half a million were hospitalized for it, and nearly 35,000 died from it. Also lat year, 1 million were hospitalized for pneumonia and 55,000 died from it. Both diseases have seasonal peaks.

    My point is not that COVID is not virulent and deadly or that proper precautions shouldn't be taken, but that media have, as with this article, removed all perspective from the daily drumbeat of doom in a truly unprecedented manner. One is forced to ask what is the motive for such.
    Reply
  • Allan Brewer
    DPBF said:
    Twenty times? Most of the deaths of persons with COVID are due to secondary pneumonia, and even the CDC has pointed out the conflation of pneumonia deaths with COVID deaths.

    Last year, 35 million Americans contracted the flu, nearly half a million were hospitalized for it, and nearly 35,000 died from it. Also lat year, 1 million were hospitalized for pneumonia and 55,000 died from it. Both diseases have seasonal peaks.

    My point is not that COVID is not virulent and deadly or that proper precautions shouldn't be taken, but that media have, as with this article, removed all perspective from the daily drumbeat of doom in a truly unprecedented manner. One is forced to ask what is the motive for such.

    I agree. Though I am not sure there is a motive - I think people/journalists are just not aware of the background rates of deaths from various causes, numbers that are also surprisingly large when taken out of context.
    Reply
  • angela
    Unfortunately this comes across as a gross exaggeration, which implies that the journalist doesn't know how to do their job properly. 'I think people/journalists are just not aware of the background rates of deaths from various causes, numbers that are also surprisingly large when taken out of context.' If someone is a journalist it is incumbent on them to do their research and report accurately, instead of spreading fear and anxiety.
    My father died in a care home 5 weeks ago. He was 93 yrs old. He had been confined to his room for 5 weeks whilst this all went on, No-one could visit him and I think he eventually thought, blow this what is the point of being here, and he quietly died. There was no sign of Covid but they wrote Covid on the death certificate. That makes me think there must be other cases of inflating the numbers.
    In the beginning of December, I had what I thought was flu, but with all the symptoms of Covid, high temperature, body aches, headache, bone aches, extreme restlessness, loss of taste even though my nose was not blocked, weakness that continued on for weeks, disturbed stomach symptoms. One thing that was missing was I wasn't petrified, because the world hadn't gone mad saying there is a virus going around that is fatal and millions will die unless we are all locked down. Eventually I got over it with natural treatments and I am probably healthier for it.
    Since then we have all been locked down, I have lost my job, put on weight and feel a hundred years old. That is what fear-mongering does for you.
    I hope that our sanity gets restored and people realise that the effect that the mind plays on your health system is more likely the deciding factor in how healthy you are
    Reply
  • richard schneider
    so how effective is the flu vaccine? without it, would influenza be substantially more dangerous? my understanding is its 80% effective. which doesn't mean without it we would have 4 times more deaths. it would be multiples of this as there is no containment of the spread. baffling...
    Reply
  • DanielMoragne
    I will agree that the 20 times higher death rate is probably a ploy to make it seem worse than it actually is (it uses the week which had the greatest recorded number of Covid-19 deaths so far), yet the point is, that there is actually no good way to reliably compare the two diseases mortality rates at this time. Added to that, there is much debate as to the reliability of the reported Covid-19 numbers. Some people think they are over-counted, while others believe they are actually under-counted.

    Here are some points to consider. First there is no similar system in place for actually counting Flu deaths. Reporting and tabulating those deaths is not mandated. Second, since there are vaccines for the Flu, and none for Covid-19, there are medical means of reducing deaths from the former, but as yet, none for the latter. Another issue is that people want to compare seasonal or yearly estimates of Flu deaths with the current total of Covid-19 deaths. However, the first recorded Covid-19 death in the USA, was only about 4-5 months ago, in January, when we recorded only a handful of deaths. Currently, the Covid-19 death count is still well over 1000 per week, nation-wide. And since we only reached the peak deaths number a few weeks back in April, we will probably have at least another 50,000 to add to the current 85,000 already counted, before this current wave is over.

    Bottom line, is that no one can really provide a reliable handle on how these two diseases really compare in their mortality rates. Probably the best measure is the number of "excess deaths" due to natural causes for similar periods before and after Covid-19 came on the scene, Those numbers seem to indicate that the current tally of Covid-19 deaths is actually an under-count.

    But whatever the actual morbidity counts are, there is no doubt that this is a serious illness, claiming way too many lives. And for those who discount it as being no worse than the Flu, please remember that in 1918 and the surrounding years, the Spanish Flu pandemic also took the lives of way too many otherwise healthy individuals. That bug wasn't "like the flu" it WAS the flu.
    Reply
  • Roger Des Roches
    DPBF said:
    Twenty times? Most of the deaths of persons with COVID are due to secondary pneumonia, and even the CDC has pointed out the conflation of pneumonia deaths with COVID deaths.

    Last year, 35 million Americans contracted the flu, nearly half a million were hospitalized for it, and nearly 35,000 died from it. Also lat year, 1 million were hospitalized for pneumonia and 55,000 died from it. Both diseases have seasonal peaks.

    My point is not that COVID is not virulent and deadly or that proper precautions shouldn't be taken, but that media have, as with this article, removed all perspective from the daily drumbeat of doom in a truly unprecedented manner. One is forced to ask what is the motive for such.
    A motive? Every country in the world has the same problem: unprecedented number of death in just three months.
    Reply
  • richard schneider
    What daniel has to say is so true. a far more balanced assessment of the situation than you would find anywhere.
    But our treatment on the virus is just plain ridiculous. Certainly we know the viruses weakness, its the youth. Surely isolating those over fifty and letting the virus run through our community and running its course. The elderly could be released back into society as hospitals could comfortably deal with the hospitalizations.
    As more and more of overcome the infection, the number of people it can spread from reduces, to such an extent that the very elderly may never even face it. But their isolation must be far more effective than what has been on offer in many parts of the world.
    And lets not forget the poor, over a billion of them, who always suffer in times of trouble. They are starving and losing the roofs over their heads. There is no need for it. let them work and provide for their families.
    Reply
  • DanielMoragne
    richard schneider said:
    What daniel has to say is so true. a far more balanced assessment of the situation than you would find anywhere.
    But our treatment on the virus is just plain ridiculous. Certainly we know the viruses weakness, its the youth. Surely isolating those over fifty and letting the virus run through our community and running its course. The elderly could be released back into society as hospitals could comfortably deal with the hospitalizations.
    As more and more of overcome the infection, the number of people it can spread from reduces, to such an extent that the very elderly may never even face it. But their isolation must be far more effective than what has been on offer in many parts of the world.
    And lets not forget the poor, over a billion of them, who always suffer in times of trouble. They are starving and losing the roofs over their heads. There is no need for it. let them work and provide for their families.
    Richard,

    Thank you for your kind words - I do try to balance what I say and not simply add to the hype from either side.

    However, I feel your suggestion of letting the younger citizens face the brunt of this pandemic. while attempting to shield the elderly and otherwise challenged population, is, in your own words "just plain ridiculous". Worse, it is down-right dangerous.

    We all would like a simple solution to this crisis we are currently facing, but like most real-world situations, simple "solutions", just won't cut it. That is why we need to pay attention to the experts - the ones who have spent their lives and careers studying just these sorts of situations.

    I have two major objections to your suggestion. The first is that if we were actually to try to expose only the young and healthy to this virus, that action is not either ethically nor medically correct. Although they will suffer statistically fewer deaths and severe complications, there will still be huge amounts of both. Even otherwise healthy kids and young adults have died from this disease, and will continue to do so. And so, without the measures currently in place to slow the spread of the virus, even this population alone could overwhelm our hospital systems. Besides which, I don't think I have seen many in this population volunteering to "take the first wave".

    The second, aside from putting all the rest of the population in level 4 containment facilities, there would be no way to effectively shield them from exposure to the others "on the front lines." Even if you could, it would be cruel and unusual punishment, to divide families in this manner.

    Bottom line is, that whatever we do, people will suffer, and people will die. We just need to find the best way to minimize the pain and suffering to the most people. And that appears to be, doing what we have to, to slow the spread, until we find effective treatments and/of a vaccine.
    Reply
  • richard schneider
    DanielMoragne said:
    Richard,

    Thank you for your kind words - I do try to balance what I say and not simply add to the hype from either side.

    However, I feel your suggestion of letting the younger citizens face the brunt of this pandemic. while attempting to shield the elderly and otherwise challenged population, is, in your own words "just plain ridiculous". Worse, it is down-right dangerous.

    We all would like a simple solution to this crisis we are currently facing, but like most real-world situations, simple "solutions", just won't cut it. That is why we need to pay attention to the experts - the ones who have spent their lives and careers studying just these sorts of situations.

    I have two major objections to your suggestion. The first is that if we were actually to try to expose only the young and healthy to this virus, that action is not either ethically nor medically correct. Although they will suffer statistically fewer deaths and severe complications, there will still be huge amounts of both. Even otherwise healthy kids and young adults have died from this disease, and will continue to do so. And so, without the measures currently in place to slow the spread of the virus, even this population alone could overwhelm our hospital systems. Besides which, I don't think I have seen many in this population volunteering to "take the first wave".

    The second, aside from putting all the rest of the population in level 4 containment facilities, there would be no way to effectively shield them from exposure to the others "on the front lines." Even if you could, it would be cruel and unusual punishment, to divide families in this manner.

    Bottom line is, that whatever we do, people will suffer, and people will die. We just need to find the best way to minimize the pain and suffering to the most people. And that appears to be, doing what we have to, to slow the spread, until we find effective treatments and/of a vaccine.
    Dear Daniel,

    Ah yes, good old ethics, stops the smartest of politicians from making decisions. Using ethics as an argument is one that is invariable different for every single person on earth.
    And as such, I will not be drawn into it when coming up with solutions. It inhibits conversation and progress.

    As into deaths for those under 50, yes there will be some. sweden may be our best guideline for this as there guidelines are far more lenient than any/most other countries. Roughly 1% for those under 50. even though they have isolated over 70s which would skew this stat. This stat is also including those who are very ill from other illnesses.

    As for those volunteering, well for those who have lost their jobs, can't feed their family 1/3 the worlds population, I think I could find a few. Easy for those in wealthy nations to have ethics....
    Reply
  • Glowone
    Im a new member and very happy to be here. This is the fact/science based discussion I have been looking for.So much fear driven rhetoric in the media it is concerning.
    Reply