Some people have downplayed the seriousness of COVID-19 by comparing it to influenza (the flu). They wonder why we have to take such dramatic precautions for this pandemic, when we accept the flu as a perennial and inevitable part of life. Doesn’t the flu kill more people than COVID-19? While the total number of people killed by COVID-19 is not much higher than the approximate number of annual flu casualties, there are several factors that indicate COVID-19 is far more dangerous than the seasonal flu.
We’ve compiled some of the key facts comparing COVID-19 to the seasonal flu based on publicly available information published on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) websites.
Ease of Transmission
Infectious disease experts talk about how readily infections spread by calculating the average number of people who catch a virus from a single infected person. This number is estimated at 1.3 for the seasonal flu. While this metric for COVID is still unclear, scientists have estimated that 2-3 people will catch the virus from a person infected with COVID, indicating COVID spreads about twice as easily as the flu.
Severity of Infections
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 80% of COVID patients experience mild symptoms or are asymptomatic, 15% acquire severe infections that require oxygen, and 5% of infections are critical enough to necessitate ventilators. WHO does not provide comparable rates of severity for the flu, but it does suggest that COVID renders a higher percentage of patients severely or critically ill than does the flu.
Mortality rates are difficult to quantify due to reporting limitations and the evolving pandemic, but WHO has determined that COVID mortality rates are higher than those associated with seasonal flu. Current estimates of the number of deaths divided by the number of reported cases, known as crude mortality, are in the 3-4% range. This is exponentially more devastating than the 0.1% approximate mortality rate of seasonal flu.
In simpler terms, 30 or 40 people will die out of every 1,000 who contract COVID, while only one person dies out of every 1,000 who acquire flu.
The actual mortality rate will likely prove lower than 3-4% as reporting improves and more cases are discovered, but the threat of dying from COVID certainly appears to be incomparable to flu. Even the lowest credible estimate of 0.6%, out of Columbia University, predicts COVID is six times deadlier than flu.
Experts and scholars will continue to study COVID-19 and the threat it poses to the public, and all of the estimates will certainly be revised over time. Here’s what will not likely change based on what is known today: COVID spreads more easily, causes more severe illnesses and is far deadlier than the seasonal flu. Thus, extreme precautions are necessary, especially for those with greater risk, such as the elderly and those with other conditions that predispose them to infection.