Editorial: Stop comparing COVID-19 to the flu 

“If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” – The Art of War 

It’s natural to compare the unknown to the known. But when the comparison does not hold up, it is time to let it go. Such is the case with COVID-19 and influenza. The flu is terrible. The novel coronavirus is worse. 

Both are infectious respiratory viruses that are particularly dangerous to older people and those with weakened immune systems. Both can be deadly. Even some of the symptoms are the same. But they are two different animals. The novel coronavirus spreads more easily and has killed more people in the U.S. in a few months than the flu did over its entire 2018-19 season. And that was with massive efforts to contain COVID-19, including stay-at-home orders and the shuttering of schools and businesses.  

Johns Hopkins University, as of May 22, put the U.S. death toll from coronavirus at 94,729. As of the week ending May 16, the CDC on its website attributed 71,339 deaths to COVID-19. But, as the CDC notes, that’s not a real-time estimate because of the lag time in how the agency collects the data from death certificates.  

By either measure, COVID-19 has killed more Americans than the flu has in recent years and at a faster pace. For the period between October 1, 2019, and April 4, the CDC estimates there have been 24,000–62,000 flu deaths. That’s a wide range. Because not all flu cases are confirmed by testing or reported to the federal government, the CDC uses the influenza data it does get to calculate the “larger burden.” In a recent opinion piece in Scientific American, Dr. Jeremy Samuel Faust, who works at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and is an instructor at Harvard Medical School, contends that CDC-reported flu deaths could be substantially overestimated.  

Preliminary data puts the 2018-2019 U.S. flu death toll at 34,157. There were 61,000 deaths in the 2017-18 season, according to the CDC, and 38,000 American deaths in the 2016-17 season. There were 23,000 deaths in 2015-16 and 51,000 in the 2014-15 flu season. While the current flu season has largely wrapped up, COVID-19 is still spreading.  

Still, there are those who claim the coronavirus is all hype and that the response is overblown. “The flu kills thousands every year and we don’t shut everything down for that” is a common refrain. So is “nobody ever makes such a big deal about the flu.” 

It’s categorically untrue that the flu arrives each year with zero fanfare. Every fall, pharmacies, doctors and public health agencies vigorously promote flu shots. Hand sanitizer dispensers, as well as face masks for patients with coughs, have long been standard practice in medical office waiting rooms. Long before COVID-19 arrived, we have known the importance of washing our hands and covering up coughs and sneezes. 

Each week during the flu season, the Maine CDC issues weekly surveillance reports. According to the May 19 report, there have been 403 positive influenza tests in Hancock County and 10,109 statewide. There have been 517 hospitalizations and 42 deaths. The 2017-18 flu season was the deadliest in Maine in decades, according to the Portland Press Herald, causing 82 deaths. As of May 21, 73 Mainers had died of COVID-19. 

The media has not ignored the flu. This paper and many others have reported on the annual impact, outbreaks and deaths. But for many in the American public, influenza is just part of life – something to be avoided, but not feared. Complacency comes with familiarity.  

If we are as complacent about COVID-19, we risk negating everything that has been done to stem the spread. Gradual reopening plans could be derailed. Wearing masks, avoiding large gatherings and providing contact information while dining out are a price to be paid for the freedom that will come with containing this virus.  

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