A study published in the Journal of American Medical Association on Thursday analyzed the rate of seasonal flu deaths versus COVID-19, and concluded that the novel coronavirus has a possible death rate that is 10 to 40 times greater than the seasonal flu.
The study, authored by Dr. Jeremy Samuel Faust of Harvard University and Dr. Carlos del Rio of Emory University, was an attempt to look at mortality numbers in the United States of COVID-19 versus the seasonal flu. The authors of the study struck down any notion that COVID-19 is just “another flu.” The study says that accounting methods between the flu versus the coronavirus make it challening to make an "apples to apples" comparison.
“Directly comparing data for 2 different diseases when mortality statistics are obtained by different methods provides inaccurate information,” the study’s authors wrote. “Moreover, the repeated failure of government officials and others in society to consider these statistical distinctions threatens public health. Government officials may rely on such comparisons, thus misinterpreting the CDC’s data, when they seek to reopen the economy and de-escalate mitigation strategies.”
The authors said that comparing the coronavirus to the seasonal flu is complicated because the CDC issues estimates and not as raw counts. The study said that from its findings, either influenza deaths are overcounted, coronavirus deaths are undercounted, or both.
“This apparent equivalence of deaths from COVID-19 and seasonal influenza does not match frontline clinical conditions, especially in some hot zones of the pandemic where ventilators have been in short supply and many hospitals have been stretched beyond their limits,” the study wrote. “The demand on hospital resources during the COVID-19 crisis has not occurred before in the US, even during the worst of influenza seasons. Yet public officials continue to draw comparisons between seasonal influenza and SARS-CoV-2 (the virus strand of COVID-19) mortality, often in an attempt to minimize the effects of the unfolding pandemic.”
Because of how flu deaths are calculated, the authors used the number of influenza-related fatalities during a one-week peak of the flu versus the one-week peak of the coronavirus. According to the CDC, counted deaths during the peak week of the influenza seasons from 2013-2014 to 2019-2020 ranged from 351 (2015-2016, week 11 of 2016) to 1,626 (2017-2018, week 3 of 2018). During the week ending April 21, 2020, 15,455 coronavirus-related deaths, which made the coronavirus' peak death rate 10 to 40 times higher than the one-week peak of the flu.
The authors did note that it’s hard to conclude the cause of death in cases of co-morbidity.
“It is also possible that some deaths that have been labeled as having been caused by COVID-19 are not due to COVID-19,” the authors wrote. “For example, in areas where there is high-level community spread, such as New York City, if a patient is brought to an emergency department in cardiac arrest and has a known positive real-time reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction test result for SARS-CoV-2, and dies, that would be considered a COVID-19 death in local death counts.”
The authors said that concluding the number of both direct and indirect number of coronavirus-related deaths would be helpful to make more definitive conclusions on the virus’ death rate.
The authors also added that some deaths may have gone unreported due to false negative tests and a lack of available testing.
To read the full study, click here.
Justin Boggs is a writer for the E.W. Scripps National Desk. Follow him on Twitter @jjboggs or on Facebook .