Pinocchio Caught a Cold

A Damned Lie: COVID-19 Impact Is Like the Flu

Vox Tweet, Flu vs CoronavirusThis one falls into the category of a damned lie. We occasionally hear from people that COVID-19 doesn’t seem so bad if you consider that the seasonal flu kills tens of thousands of people every year. This lie is also a go-to strategy for politicians who want to deny the seriousness of the problem we face.

This is a lie because facts make it so. It’s a damned lie because this pandemic is hurting people we love on a scale that the flu doesn’t match. It’s pure misinformation and right now, as we face a serious pandemic, misinformation kills.

Just the Facts

Since 2010, flu-related illnesses have killed 12,000 to 61,000 annually in the U.S. By comparison, after just a few weeks, COVID-19 has already killed 2,112 people (as of March 29) in the U.S. And the rate of deaths is accelerating at an alarming pace – doubling in just two days. This is what we call an exponential growth curve.

This rapid growth in deaths tells epidemiologists that the number of deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. will likely grow to hundreds of thousands of people. And if the government response is especially bad, deaths could reach into the millions. Around the world, this will add up to millions of deaths, even in a best-case scenario.

But even worse is the impact on health systems and healthcare providers. Already in the U.S., this pandemic is overwhelming hospitals in major cities like New York. The President, who only days ago had spoken cavalierly about “packed churches” on Easter Sunday, backed off from that rhetoric because of how bad the numbers are. Another factor seems to be images of body bags at Elmhurst Hospital, near where he grew up.

The Impact on Real Human Beings

The statistics, models, and pictures are powerful. But real human stories bring it home that this is a very different situation from the seasonal flu. We suggest you take 25 minutes to listen to the story of a 56-year-old man and his family when he develops COVID-19. He was an active and mostly healthy man who loved to cycle. Now he barely has strength to get up and go to the bathroom. His daughter, who is not ill, describes being confined to their apartment:

I took out the kitty litter, and I saw some people standing on the corner, and I was like, I want to see strangers! And then I heard them saying: ‘It’s actually been really nice. It’s been a chance to connect as a family.’ And I was like, No, actually, I don’t want to see strangers, and I came back in.

People have no clue what it’s like to live through this. We have a friend who was near death with this disease for weeks. We have family and loved ones whose lives are at risk. Right now.

So no, this is nothing like the seasonal flu. That is a damned lie. And in a pandemic, lies are deadly.

However, what will sustain you is hope and love and taking good care of yourself and the people you love. Do what you can to protect yourself and others from the virus. And know that it’s OK to grieve the losses you might be feeling. We all are, so you are not alone.

Click here for more on the objective differences between COVID-19 and the seasonal flu.

Pinocchio Caught a Cold, photograph © WiSchWerk / flickr

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March 30, 2020

5 Responses to “A Damned Lie: COVID-19 Impact Is Like the Flu”

  1. March 30, 2020 at 8:19 am, Mary-jo said:

    Responses from the top leadership officials in the USA have ranged from wishful thinking to misleading to inappropriate to downright wrong and nasty to very harmful. Our politicians in Europe have also missed a few beats when it comes to how seriously and/or how soon (rather, late) The pandemic and all its ramifications were addressed, but humility, strength of resolve, immediate support and assurance to caretakers and the public and consistent messaging quickly took over. The world is appalled at what’s happening in the USA — certainly not toward the general population, but more toward the leadership and those who blindly nod their heads and prop up this leadership.

  2. March 31, 2020 at 9:30 am, Gary Deverman said:

    2020 US Deaths to date:

    Coronaviris = 2112

    Annual Flu =.24,000

    NOTE:. H1N1 (Swine Flu) US Cases in 2009/2010 = 61 MILLION

    Just saying!

  3. March 31, 2020 at 2:25 pm, Richard Atkinson said:

    Normally I agree with most everything in these columns, but this column seems to be overly pessimistic. Let’s look at flu, then at Covid19. From 9.3 million to 49 million Americans get flu each year Of these, 12,000 to 79,000 die. However, the true number is probably 2-3 times higher due to incomplete reporting. Compare the flu statistics with Covid19. The early reports of any epidemic tend to exaggerate the mortality and morbidity because only infected people are tested. Over time, a better picture emerges.

    Korea tested a very large number of people and have good data. The overall mortality rate was 1% of infected people, but rates below age 60 were very small. Of 3711 people on the Diamond Princess, virtually all were tested. About 50% of infected were asymptomatic. Among 712 positives (19%); 10 died (mortality rate 1.4%). Average age was 58; all who died were >70. These data suggest that the eventual death rate will be much lower than the hysterical numbers bandied about in the media (and unfortunately by Anthony Fauci).

    Covid19 probably is more infectious than flu and probably is more dangerous to old people than flu, by a factor estimated to be 5X or more. Platitudes by politicians about “saving lives”are a mistake, in my opinion. The current shutdown of our economy cannot persist and over time, people will ignore the rules. The shutdowns will bring increased suicide, marriage breakups, poverty, child and spouse abuse, a recession or depression, and a massive debt. Those who are most at risk should take all the isolation precautions extremely seriously. Everybody else should get on with life. This 78 y.o. would risk dying than penalize my children and their children.

    Finally, I take offense at the comments by Mary-jo to this column. She implies that President Trump and the U.S. leadership have been very harmful, and the Europeans have been great after some early miscues. That is why Italy, Spain, and France are doing so well. England is exploding with the virus and the NHS can’t keep up. Trump was the first leader to ban travel from China – many countries followed later. Private businesses in the US have responded magnificently. The whole world was very unprepared and snarky comments about the U.S. leadership are inaccurate and not welcome.

  4. March 31, 2020 at 3:45 pm, Ted said:

    Thanks, Gary, but even our President is now saying that we will be very fortunate indeed if deaths from COVID-19 total only 100,000 this year.

  5. April 01, 2020 at 8:16 am, Ted said:

    Thanks, Richard, for sharing your view. We’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. Your comments are welcome, as are Mary-jo’s.

    Editor’s note: All comments are reviewed for appropriateness to this forum and subject to editing for length.