Coronavirus is not the flu

(Updated 5/13/2020 to reflect increasing COVID-19 numbers)

Locker room pep-talk time.

I’m starting to see and hear more of the “COVID-19 is no worse than the flu” statements again recently. I almost wrote a post about this two weeks ago but actually decided against it because I thought it was old hat. But now that we are getting tired of mitigation efforts, the comparison is making a come back, not because the nature of the virus has changed, but because our will to continue doing what we have been doing is diminishing.

Then I saw a meme going around stating our concern for coronavirus is way overblown compared to the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919 and I had to comment. Barely 4-5 months into this pandemic, don’t let yourself be surprised that COVID’s numbers are much less than an entire flu pandemic that lasted two years. Even since this meme started being shared, total cases of COVID-19 have more than doubled, and deaths have tripled. I’m also hearing people question whether COVID-19 is any worse than the H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic of 2009-2010.

Wayne Gretzky taught us that “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”

COVID-19 makes the flu look like pee-wee hockey.

COVID-19 (or more technically named SARS-CoV-2) is far more contagious than the flu. It has an R0 (pronounced R-nought) that is estimated by scientists to be at least 2x higher than flu. R0 is the average number of people that one infected person infects. Even a small increase in this number produces a much larger acceleration in spread as the second “generation” infects a third, fourth, fifth etc. Any solitary infected person is contagious for up to 12-14 days compared to 2-3 days for the flu.

COVID-19 is far more deadly than the flu. People quote a 10% mortality rate for the Spanish flu pandemic but that percentage reflects 1918 medicine, an era before we had mechanical ventilators, or even antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial pneumonias. We had barely accepted the “germ theory” a few decades before. This number does not tell you anything about the virulence of the flu itself compared to COVID-19. Today the flu kills a fraction of 1% of infected people. Our best regions so far (where the healthcare system is not overwhelmed and/or populations are relatively healthy) have a mortality rate around 1-3% with COVID-19.

People claim our COVID-19 response is overboard compared to the H1N1 (swine flu) response. But swine flu killed only 12,000 (up to 18,000 by the most generous estimates) Americans and anywhere from 150,000 to 500,000 globally, whereas COVID-19 has killed over 80,000 Americans and nearly 300,000 globally and counting as of 5/13/20. Those swine flu numbers are over an entire year, and COVID-19 is just getting started (about 4.5 months now since the first cases were reported globally). 

There is no comparison between these two viruses. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise. Far and away, COVID-19 has much more destructive potential energy.

The fact that numbers of new cases have started to level off in many places is due to the fact that our mitigation efforts are working. We should be ecstatic that this is the case. All these restrictions are temporary measures to be kept in place to buy us time to strengthen our game. We should be grateful that we have the healthcare we do have even as we beef it up. The game is far from over.

But an animation is worth a million words so please watch this video and share with family and friends, especially those who are doubting the importance of social distancing, staying at home, wearing a mask, washing hands and other life-saving measures recommended by the CDC.

We need to listen to our coaches, Dr. Fauci and others who are telling us to not take our eyes off the puck. There is danger in going back to “business as usual” too soon and too quickly. It needs to be done carefully, thoughtfully, and step by step with the guidance of epidemiologists.

We’ve taken a beating in the first part of the game. But we can hold our own. We’ve come too far to only come this far.

We’ve got this.