This editorial appeared in the Sun Sentinel newspaper in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
A fair number of people have let themselves be misled by the notion that the new coronavirus is no more lethal than seasonal influenza. Some are asking, not all of them politely, why social distancing, shuttered workplaces and a springtime without sports are necessary.
In fact, the virus that causes COVID-19 is far more dangerous than ordinary flu. It’s twice as contagious, and those whom it sickens are far more likely to die.
Moreover, the widely quoted figure of up to 60,000 “normal” flu deaths a year is an estimate of doubtful accuracy. The national death toll from the new virus passed 63,000 in barely two months, and stands at 73,000 as of Wednesday. This is a hard count of cases — confirmed by testing — not an estimate.
“Comparing COVID-19 deaths to flu deaths is like comparing apples to oranges,” says a Jan. 28 essay on scientificamerican.com.
“With each new day of data that we collect about this novel coronavirus, the more we realize that by most metrics it is far more dangerous than the flu,” says a blog post by Southern Strategies, the lobbyists for Florida Blue, the state’s largest health insurance company.
What medical science calls the “reproduction rate” defines how many people will be affected by one contagious person. With COVID-19, that figure is 2.5 — one carrier will infect more than two other people. The rate for seasonal flu is 1.3, just about half. So the new virus is twice as contagious.
The virus also is up to 10 times more deadly, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
The death rate among confirmed cases is about 6% nationally and 3.5% in Florida, compared to 0.1 for seasonal influenza. For every 1,000 Floridians who test positive, 35 will die of the new virus. Among every thousand who catch the seasonal flu, one life will be lost.
Another key difference is that there are vaccines for seasonal flu, making it less contagious. It’s noteworthy, though, that their effectiveness varies from year to year because flu strains mutate rapidly. So does the common cold, another form of coronavirus, for which no vaccine has ever been approved. Development of an effective vaccine against the virus that causes COVID-19 is not guaranteed.
That situation is improving, but there is a long way to go until we are testing enough people, especially those without symptoms, to know where and to what extent restrictions on work and social gatherings can be safely relaxed.
In the last six flu seasons, the Scientific American article says, the CDC’s count of confirmed flu deaths — “that is, counting flu deaths the way we are currently counting deaths from the coronavirus — has ranged from 3,448 to 15,620, which is far lower than the numbers commonly repeated by public officials and even public health experts.”
While the CDC may be overestimating normal flu deaths to encourage vaccination, it is not hyping COVID-19 fatalities. If anything, it is undercounting them.
Comparing confirmed death rates from both causes, the Scientific American article concludes, the coronavirus kills “between 9.5 and 44 times more people than seasonal flu. In other words, the coronavirus is not anything like the flu: It is much, much worse.”