Flu Deaths Are Much Overstated; COVID is Far Deadlier

Flu Deaths Are Much Overstated; COVID is Far Deadlier. By Jeremy Faust.

In late February, when the stock market was beginning to fall over coronavirus fears, President Donald Trump held a briefing at the White House to reassure people that there was little chance of the virus causing significant disruption in the United States.

“I want you to understand something that shocked me when I saw it,” he said. “The flu, in our country, kills from 25,000 people to 69,000 people a year. That was shocking to me.”

Trump was right to be shocked. Compare the alleged 25 to 69 thousand deaths by flu to the 35 thousand deaths each year in the US from road fatalities. The official flu deaths are slightly higher on average than road deaths.

Really? I know personally know, or know of, quite a few people who have died by car accident. But I’ve never even heard of anyone personally who has died of flu. Odd.

When reports about the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 began circulating earlier this year and questions were being raised about how the illness it causes, COVID-19, compared to the flu, it occurred to me that, in four years of emergency medicine residency and over three and a half years as an attending physician, I had almost never seen anyone die of the flu. I could only remember one tragic pediatric case.

Based on the CDC numbers though, I should have seen many, many more. In 2018, over 46,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses. Over 36,500 died in traffic accidents. Nearly 40,000 died from gun violence. I see those deaths all the time. Was I alone in noticing this discrepancy?

I decided to call colleagues around the country who work in other emergency departments and in intensive care units to ask a simple question: how many patients could they remember dying from the flu? Most of the physicians I surveyed couldn’t remember a single one over their careers. Some said they recalled a few. All of them seemed to be having the same light bulb moment I had already experienced: For too long, we have blindly accepted a statistic that does not match our clinical experience.

The 25,000 to 69,000 numbers that Trump cited do not represent counted flu deaths per year; they are estimates that the CDC produces by multiplying the number of flu death counts reported by various coefficients produced through complicated algorithms. …

In the last six flu seasons, the CDC’s reported number of actual 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 far lower than the numbers commonly repeated by public officials and even public health experts.

So the flu deaths are actually about a fifth of the reported rate.

There is some logic behind the CDC’s methods. There are, of course, some flu deaths that are missed, because not everyone who contracts the flu gets a flu test. But there are little data to support the CDC’s assumption that the number of people who die of flu each year is on average six times greater than the number of flu deaths that are actually confirmed. In fact, in the fine print, the CDC’s flu numbers also include pneumonia deaths. …

Who you going to believe, the CDC or your own lying eyes?

If we compare, for instance, the number of people who died in the United States from COVID-19 in the second full week of April to the number of people who died from influenza during the worst week of the past seven flu seasons (as reported to the CDC), we find that the novel coronavirus killed 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.

Refrigerated trucks for the bodies at a New York hospital. Yep, just another flu season.

From this perspective, the data on coronavirus and flu actually match — rather than flying in the face of — our lived reality in the coronavirus pandemic: hospitals in hot spots stretched to their limits and, in New York City in particular, so many dead that the bodies are stacked in refrigerator trucks. We have never seen such conditions.

And less than 1% of the US has been infected with COVID, compared to much higher rates of flu each year. Imagine the death toll if 20% per year were getting COVID. COVID is much deadlier and much more contagious than flu.

The original Chinese propaganda was that COVID was no worse than the flu. Amazingly enough, despite the bodies piling up (and the Chinese welding people into their apartments), some people still believe this. Indeed they argue vociferously for it. They cherry pick data, misreading headlines in their confirmation bias, and misrepresent studies with massive selection bias to “prove” that there are zillions of undetected infections. Changing one’s mind can be difficult, especially after running around telling everyone how stupid they are for believing that COVID is much worse than the flu. In some echo chambers, people have developed herd immunity to evidence.

Once politics and egos get involved, truth takes a back seat for a while. But reality is what remains, even after you stop believing, and eventually everyone finds out.