Are more people dying from the flu this year compared to other seasons? Here's what to know.

By Claire Gillespie
Updated March 26, 2020
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The official toll of the 2019-2020 influenza season won't be known for months—not that anyone is really fretting about that right now. Worries over the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, have eclipsed many people's concerns about coming down with a case of the flu.

Not that you ought to take influenza lightly. Flu season in the US, which runs from October through May, claims tens of thousands of lives every year. This season CDC estimates that, as of mid-March, between 29,000 and 59,000 have died due to influenza illnesses. Add to that the misery of hundreds of thousands of flu-related hospitalizations and millions of medical visits for flu symptoms this season.

So while the flu has long been considered a dangerous seasonal scourge, new data on the COVID-19 epidemic underscore a frightening fact: COVID-19 is even deadlier.

“The current flu season has been difficult but it has not reached epidemic threshold,” infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the John's Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, told Health in February. “In the next couple of weeks, when more data is available, it will become clear just how severe the season was given that we had an initial dominance of influenza B and now dominance of influenza A H1N1.” (When a second strain begins to dominate the flu season, this can cause the season to last longer, he explained.)

When Health interviewed Dr. Adalja, there were only 13 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus in the US, according to the CDC. In a matter of weeks, COVID-19 has reached pandemic status, sickening staggering numbers of people around the globe and spreading to every state in the US.

As of March 26, more than a half million people around the world have contracted COVID-19, and nearly 24,000 have died, according to Johns Hopkins University's real-time tracker. In the US, nearly 80,000 cases have been confirmed, and more than 1,100 people have died.

So how do the flu and coronavirus compare? Just a few weeks ago, the flu appeared to be the more menacing concern. The death rate from influenza is generally just a fraction of 1%.

How things have changed.

During a March 11 hearing of the House Oversight and Reform Committee on coronavirus preparedness, Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, put it plainly: "The seasonal flu that we deal with every year has a mortality of 0.1%,” he told the congressional panel, whereas coronavirus is "10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu," per STAT news.

As if the current situation weren't dire enough, Dr. Fauci, a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, cautioned on March 25 that coronavirus could become a cyclical event, much like the flu. He said that the U.S. needs to be prepared for the inevitability of a second cycle beginning in the fall of 2020.

This year's flu season is shaping up to be possibly less severe than the 2017-2018 season, when 61,000 deaths were linked to the virus. However, it could equal or surpass the 2018-2019 season's 34,200 flu-related deaths. 

Overall, the CDC estimates that 12,000 and 61,000 deaths annually since 2010 can be blamed on the flu. Globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the flu kills 290,000 to 650,000 people per year. 

The annual death rate depends on the specific strain of the virus that is dominant, how well the vaccine is working to protect against that strain, and how many people got vaccinated, according to Dr. Adalja. The flu can be harder to fight off for specific populations, such as infants and young children, the elderly, and people who are immunocompromised due to chronic illnesses such as HIV or cancer.

The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months and older get a flu vaccine every year. It's the first and most important step that people can take to guard against the flu and its complications, says CDC.

In recent weeks, however, the spotlight has shifted to the new coronavirus, which is sickening people of all ages, especially older adults and people with underlying health issues. Unlike the seasonal flu, there's no vaccine to prevent COVID-19, at least not yet. And that makes it all the more important for all of us to take precautions to guard against the risk of acquiring and transmitting the new virus.

The CDC recommends putting distance (at least 6 feet) between yourself and others, practicing frequent handwashing, and cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces—especially when someone is ill. 

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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