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It's Basically Just the Flu, Right? (Comparing Flu and COVID-19 Infection Rates, Death Rates, and Why You Should Wear a Damn Mask)

This is something you’ll hear all the time from Fox News viewers and those who get their medical advice from conservative political pundits on YouTube. I’ve heard it enough that I decided to look at the numbers myself and see exactly how much water those claims hold.

TLDR: They hold no water, are you kidding me? I kind of assumed this because medical experts disagree with this, it’s only political pundits who argue this is true, but looking at the numbers helps clarify how full of BS these claims are in the first place.

Also, this whole situation is more complicated than this article will get into, but this is simply an attempt to remove all political spin and just look at the numbers to see if the flu and COVID-19 are in the same ballpark.

Data sources:

Number of deaths

As of now, 125,000 people in the US have died from COVID-19. Maybe that number is slightly over reported, maybe it’s slightly underreported, but in general we can agree that at least 100,000 people have died so far, and that number is going to keep growing.

Now how many people die of the flu in the US each year? Well, these are estimates as well, as tracking exact numbers of causes of deaths is apparently harder than you’d expect, but here are the CDC’s numbers for recent years:

  • 2019: 34,000
  • 2018: 61,000
  • 2017: 38,000
  • 2016: 23,000
  • 2015: 51,000
  • 2014: 38,000
  • 2013: 43,000
  • 2012: 12,000
  • 2011: 37,000

So if we look at the worst year in the past decade for the flu, it’s still half as deadly as COVID-19. And on average, about 37,000 deaths is less than a third as many deaths as we’ve seen from the current coronavirus.

Interesting side note: in researching the numbers around flu deaths, there are some conspiracy theorists out there who think that flu deaths are inflated to sell flu shots. These claims are baseless, of course, and are centered around the fact the CDC uses the word “estimate” in their explanation on their reporting.

How many people get it?

By our current counts, at least 2.5 million Americans have gotten COVID-19. The number is some amount higher than that since not everyone who had it got tested, but we don’t have a good estimate for that.

Instead, let’s focus on how many people are estimated to get the flu every year in the US. According to the CDC, 8-20% of Americans get the flu every year, and 3-11% of them show symptoms (aka 5-9% are asymtematic carriers. The CDC estimates 2018 (the worst year for deaths) had 45 million Americans showing symptoms. That’s 14% of the population. The CDC doesn’t report asymptematic numbers anymore, but if we assume similar trends to previous years, that puts us in the 55-65 million range for all people who got the flu.

Put those together: how many die from the infection?

So if at least 45 million people got the flu and 61,000 of them died in 2018, the worst year in the decade, that‘s .136% of people in the US who get the flu, die from the flu.

Let’s give the “it’s just the flu” people the benefit of the doubt and say:

  • COVID-19 deaths are over-reported by the worst case 25% and deaths are closer to 100,000
  • Cases are not being tested for well and there are 10x more people who have had it, bringing it to 25 million Americans

Even with those stacking-the-deck numbers, that’s 3x more deadly than the flu.

But if we don’t stack the deck (since we didn’t do that for the flu numbers) then what we have are 125,000 people dying on just 2.5 million infections. That’s 5%, or 40x more deadly than the flu.

Long story short, we’re landing on COVID-19 being 3-40x more likely to kill you than the flu.

Mitigating circumstances

The background of all this is that while COVID-19 has killed more people in 3 months than the flu has in the past 3 years, we’ve also been in a nationwide “lockdown” to try and prevent its spread. Things are opening up, but there are tons of rules in place to make sure people remotely stay apart and wear masks to prevent them from spreading the disease if they have it.

Meanwhile, we do close to nothing to prevent the flu from spreading. None of us wore masks when we went out during flu season to make sure we didn’t spread it to others. Tons of people went to work with the flu because they wanted to work through it or their employer didn’t pay them if they didn’t work, so they needed to keep working. We didn’t clean surfaces or anything like that…basically, we lived with it.

You can split hairs all you want, but the fact is that despite our country taking the strongest steps maybe ever to try and stem the spread of a disease, it’s still killing at a much higher rate than the flu.

Takeaway

As I did last month, it’s been quite informative to look at the numbers. Doing so again for this was equally clarifying.

Wear a damned mask and only expose yourself to others when you need to do so.

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