By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the nationwide quarantine and social distancing orders, a number of posts have been floating around the internet. The authors are usually coronavirus deniers and those who feel that the government response to this crisis has been vastly overblown.
One statement in particular is: “Why is coronavirus more concerning than the flu? The flu affects more people and kills more people.”
But this argument is intellectually dishonest, because it suggests that a death count at any one point in time is the only metric worth considering in comparing the flu (Influenzas A and B) with the novel coronavirus. Here are some of the other factors that this argument ignores:
- Severity: In the 2019–2020 flu season, LiveScience Senior Writer Rachael Rettner notes that roughly one percent of all people who contracted the flu experienced symptoms severe enough to warrant hospitalization. Rettner adds that a CDC-published report estimated that the hospitalization rate for coronavirus was roughly 12 percent. So if you contract the coronavirus illness called COVID-19, you are 12 times more likely to need hospital care than if you had the flu.
- Risk of Transmission: Experts quoted in The New York Times estimated that, on average, someone with the flu will infect 1.3 other people through proximity or actual contact. Studies on coronavirus transmission estimate that a person with the virus will infect between 2.0 and 2.5 other people. So if you come down with COVID-19, you are likely to infect nearly twice as many people as you would if you got the flu.
- Mortality Rate: The average historical death rate from the flu is about 0.1 percent. In his opening remarks at the March 3 media briefing on COVID-19, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus put the estimated death rate from the coronavirus at 3.4 percent. So the coronavirus will kill roughly 34 times as many people than it infects. In the 2019–2020 flu season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that between 39 million and 56 million people caught the flu in the United States, which resulted in the 24,000 to 62,000 deaths cited in the bogus argument. But if that same number of people had caught the novel coronavirus instead, the death toll would have been between 1.3 and 1.9 million.
- Vaccines: We have vaccines for seasonal flu. CDC studies suggest that flu vaccines can reduce the risk of infection by between 40 and 60 percent. There is no vaccine for COVID-19 yet, so we have no way of reducing the risk of infection other than by quarantine and social distancing.
So the next time a coworker or family member tells you that the flu has historically killed more people than COVID-19 and therefore society should not be worried, be sure to point out that there’s more to a novel viral pandemic than just the death count at some arbitrary moment in time.
This is why it is important to trust expertise when it is most crucial. If we listen to advice from true medical experts, we stand a good chance of reducing the costs — in lives and heartache as well as in dollars — incurred from COVID-19.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.