When the coronavirus pandemic first emerged, many comparisons arose between COVID-19 and the flu. More than anything, people wondered whether the coronavirus could possibly be worse than seasonal influenza, which is known to cause deaths every flu season.
Now recent reports suggest that, though both viruses are dangerous and cause overlapping symptoms, the COVID-19 death rate in the U.S is far higher than the influenza death rate.
Taking a Deeper Look at the Numbers
On the surface, the numbers look similar. By early May 2020, COVID-19 caused about 65,000 deaths in the United States. That figure roughly mirrored the CDC’s yearly estimates of influenza deaths ranging from 23,000-61,000.
However, those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Only two months later, in early July 2020, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of 129,000 Americans, nearly double the number in early May. Just as significantly, the actual number of counted influenza deaths during the 2018-2019 season was 15,620, far lower than the CDC’s general estimate.
According to an article published by authors from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Emory University School of Medicine, “On average, the CDC estimates of deaths attributed to influenza were nearly 6 times greater than its reported counted numbers. Conversely, COVID-19 fatalities are at present being counted and reported directly, not estimated.”
As a result, the study authors explain, it’s more accurate to compare weekly counts of COVID-19 deaths to weekly counts of seasonal influenza deaths.
- Peak Week of Flu Season, 2016: 351 flu deaths
- Peak Week of Flu Season, 2019: 1626 flu deaths
- Week ending April 21, 2020: 15,455 COVID-19 deaths
- Week ending April 14, 2020: 14,478 COVID-19 deaths
“These statistics on counted deaths suggest that the number of COVID-19 deaths for the week ending April 21 was 9.5-fold to 44.1-fold greater than the peak week of counted influenza deaths during the past 7 influenza seasons in the US, with a 20.5-fold mean increase,” the authors emphasized.
What Does It All Mean?
Before the coronavirus emerged, the flu was a major public health concern, especially for the elderly. However, the COVID-19 death rate now dwarfs the death rate associated with influenza. According to the CDC, about 0.1% of people infected with the flu in the U.S died last year. Coronavirus, on the other hand, is tracking at a 5.2% death rate.
That makes the average COVID-19 death rate 52 times higher than that of the flu.
That number is even more astonishing when broken down by age group and compared to the flu:
- Ages 65+: 0.83% of elderly people infected with the flu die, compared to Comparing Death Rates: COVID-19 vs the Flu1.3% of those infected with the coronavirus
- Ages 50-64: 0.06% of those infected with the flu due from the virus, compared to 2.9% of those infected with coronavirus
- Ages 0-4: 0.01% of young children infected with the flu die, compared to 1.9% of those infected with coronavirus
Given this information, experts emphasize that it’s critical to take extra precautions to stop the spread of COVID-19.
“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. Doing so better demonstrates the true threat to public health from COVID-19,” stated Carlos del Rio, MD of Emory University School of Medicine.