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

By Claire Gillespie
Updated September 24, 2020
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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. But that doesn't mean people ought to take influenza lightly.

Flu season in the US, which runs from October through May, claims tens of thousands of lives every year. Because the flu is not a reportable disease in most states, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not have an exact count of the number of people sickened each year. Instead, it develops estimates based on rates of laboratory-confirmed, flu-associated hospitalizations.

Preliminary CDC estimates for the 2019-2020 influenza season indicate that, as of April 4, 2020, between 24,000 and 62,000 lost their lives to the flu. Add to that the misery of hundreds of thousands of flu-related hospitalizations and millions of medical visits for flu symptoms.

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.

This past flu season, although difficult, did not reach "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. 

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 reached pandemic status, sickening staggering numbers of people around the globe and spreading to every state in the US.  More than 32 million people around the world have contracted COVID-19, and 977,000 have died, according to Johns Hopkins University's real-time tracker. In the US, nearly 7 million cases have been confirmed, and 202,000 people have died.

So how do the flu and coronavirus compare? Initially, 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, also cautioned that coronavirus could become a cyclical event, much like the flu. Yet, as the US potentially faces a second cycle, COVID-19 cases remain stubbornly high in many states.

Overall, the CDC estimates that 12,000 and 61,000 deaths annually since 2010 can be blamed on the flu. The higher number reflects the particularly harsh 2017-2018 flu season. Most years, the US death toll from the flu is closer to 34,000 to 43,000. 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. And in COVID times, keeping yourself and your family healthy will "help conserve potentially scarce health care resources," says the CDC.

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 wearing a mask to prevent transmission in public spaces, 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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