Flu kills 12,000 in 4 months. Is coronavirus panic overblown?

The CDC estimates that more than 210,000 people in the U.S. have been hospitalized by the flu this season.

Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images
  • The 2019-2020 flu season, which began in late September, is estimated to have already killed 12,000 to 30,000 people in the U.S., according to the CDC.
  • The death toll for the new strain of coronavirus remains far lower, prompting some people to argue that the public's concern about coronavirus is misplaced.
  • Still, there are valid reasons to be concerned about the new virus.


The new coronavirus has so far killed more than 1,300 people around the world, and it's infected at least 15 people in the U.S. But meanwhile, the flu has killed at least 12,000 people in the U.S. alone, with flu activity hovering above baseline for 12 weeks straight.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this flu season (which started September 29, 2019) has so far seen an estimated:

  • 22 to 31 million cases
  • 210,000 to 370,000 hospitalizations
  • 12,000 to 30,000 deaths
  • At least 78 pediatric deaths

CDC

The 2019-2020 flu season has been relatively bad, caused in roughly equal parts by the two main strains of influenza: A and B.

"Currently, we have high levels of influenza in the country, which started out really early this year, around Thanksgiving," Dr. Bernard Camins, medical director for infection prevention at the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, told U.S. News & World Report. "Pretty much the entire country has high levels of influenza-like illness right now."

Coronavirus Outbreak : Illustration

(Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images)

In light of the data, is the public's hysteria over coronavirus misplaced? Some think so. Buzzfeed said: "Don't worry about the new coronavirus, worry about the flu." Axios suggested: "If you're freaking out about coronavirus but you didn't get a flu shot, you've got it backwards." And health officials in Maine and California offered similar reality checks.

But these "viral whataboutism" critiques — as Wired's Roxanne Khamsi dubbed them — might be missing the point. Sure, the public may be falling prey to saliency bias — our tendency to focus on information that's more prominent or emotionally striking, while ignoring less remarkable (but potentially more important) information.

However, it's not an either-or situation, where being concerned about coronavirus means you're necessarily ignorant about the dangers of the common flu. What's more, there are reasons to be uniquely concerned about coronavirus.

For one, coronavirus appears to be far more lethal: The fatality rate for this season's flu has been about 0.05 percent, while it's been about 2 percent for coronavirus.

Coronavirus also seems to spread more easily from person to person. Scientists use the "basic reproduction number" — or R0 — to estimate the transmissibility of a virus. The flu has an R0 of about 1.3 (meaning each person who gets the flu is likely to spread it to 1.3 people), while coronavirus has an R0 of about 2.2. (However, scientists are still trying to determine the R0 of coronavirus, and the number is likely to change as the virus spreads and mutates.)

But perhaps the biggest difference between the two is predictability. Experts still aren't sure how deadly the new coronavirus will turn out to be, or how far it will spread. In contrast, health officials know roughly what to expect from influenza at the start of each flu season, as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said during a recent White House press conference:

"Despite the morbidity and mortality with influenza, there's a certainty […] of seasonal flu. [...] I can tell you all, guaranteed, that as we get into March and April, the flu cases are going to go down. You could predict pretty accurately what the range of the mortality is and the hospitalizations [will be]. [...] The issue now with [2019-nCoV] is that there's a lot of unknowns."

One major unknown with the new coronavirus lies in prevention. Unlike the flu, there's no vaccine, though scientists are working to develop one. Until then, the CDC recommends a few steps to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses, which include coronaviruses and flu viruses:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
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