No, the coronavirus is not like the flu

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By Katherine J. Wu


Mere hours after defiantly advising Americans not to fear the coronavirus or let it “dominate your life,” President Donald Trump took to Twitter on Tuesday morning with misleading comparisons of COVID-19 to the flu.

“Many people every year, sometimes over 100,000, and despite the Vaccine, die from the Flu,” Trump tweeted. “Are we going to let it close down our Country? No, we have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with COVID, in most populations far less lethal!!!”

But his comparisons of COVID-19 and the flu stand in sharp contrast to months of data gathered by experts, who have repeatedly said that the coronavirus poses a far more serious threat than influenza viruses. Based on data gathered thus far, most flu viruses are less deadly and less contagious than the coronavirus. And while flu vaccines and federally approved treatments for the flu exist, no such products have been fully cleared by governing bodies for use against the coronavirus.

Twitter appended a note to Trump’s tweet, saying that it violated the company’s rules about spreading false and misleading information about the virus. But it kept the post up, saying that it was in the public interest to keep it accessible. Facebook removed a similar post from Trump, saying that the company removes incorrect information about the coronavirus.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 24,000 and 62,000 flu-related deaths occur in the United States each year — substantially fewer than Trump claimed. In February, Trump stuck closer to the facts at a White House news conference.

“The flu, in our country, kills from 25,000 people to 69,000 people a year. That was shocking to me,” he said at the time.

Earlier that month, according to the recent book by Bob Woodward, Trump described the coronavirus as “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.” On average, seasonal flu strains kill about 0.1% of the people they infect.

The coronavirus, on the other hand, has killed more than 210,000 people in the United States, and more than 1 million worldwide, since the start of 2020. The virus’ true mortality rate remains unclear, as it is difficult to gather such data while the pandemic rages on. Inadequate testing has also made it hard to pinpoint how many people have been stricken by the virus, which can spread silently from people who never show symptoms.

Still, estimates from experts tend to put the coronavirus’ death rate higher than the flu’s. The virus’ death toll was especially high in late winter and spring, when hospitals were overwhelmed, clinically tested treatments were scarce and masking and distancing were even more scarce than they are now.

“This is basically nonsensical ranting and raving,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, said about Trump’s statements. “This just demonstrates that, for a businessman, President Trump doesn’t seem to have much of a grasp of mathematics.”

Frequent encounters with past flu strains, in combination with effective vaccines, can also bolster the body’s defenses against new flu viruses. The coronavirus, however, has swept through a defenseless population of unprepared hosts at a dizzying rate.

Deaths also don’t reveal the entire picture. Researchers still don’t fully understand the long-term consequences of coronavirus infections, which have saddled a growing number of people, called long-haulers, with serious and debilitating symptoms that can linger for weeks or months.

Medical experts have also warned that as the northern hemisphere cools for winter, the flu and COVID-19 could collide, fueling a new spate of deaths.

Trump, who tested positive for the coronavirus last week, has downplayed the severity of the pathogen several times in recent days, even though he was sent to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to receive treatment for COVID-19. While at the hospital, he received several therapies typically designated only for those who are very seriously ill.

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