DETROIT – If the seasonal flu kills tens of thousands of people every year and we don’t shut down the economy, why are we closing everything for the coronavirus (COVID-19)?
That’s a question many people have asked Local 4′s Dr. Frank McGeorge since the start of the pandemic, and it feels especially relevant as politicians debate when and how to reopen businesses.
One of the biggest differences we’ve seen between the two is how the viruses strike a community. Flu season lasts for several months each year, while COVID-19 cases have hit in a much more concentrated way.
For example, COVID-19 recently killed as many New Yorkers in three days’ time as the season flu typically does in an entire year.
Make no mistake: The seasonal flu is deadly, too.
Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate up to 56 million Americans have had the seasonal flu from last October through the beginning of April.
Between 24,000 and 62,000 Americans have died from the flu.
In comparison, COVID-19 cases are now approaching 600,000 in the country, with more than 25,000 deaths.
With limited testing, we have little idea how many Americans have actually been infected with the coronavirus, but remember, we also have an annual vaccine and treatments to help limit the impact of the seasonal flu.
Some people also have a degree of natural immunity to the flu from previous exposure to similar strains.
There is no vaccine for the coronavirus, no proven treatment and no natural immunity because it’s a new virus.
Without the social distancing and shutdowns currently in place, the coronavirus would spread through communities much more rapidly than the flu, overloading the medical system.
COVID-19 patients also tend to be sicker for longer. The median length of hospitalization for an adult with the flu is just under three days. In Seattle, for COVID-19 patients, the median stay was 12-17 days, most of which were in the intensive care unit.
Another major difference is the level of personal protection equipment required. When doctors treat a flu patient, they don’t need N-95 masks or face shields, but they need those items around COVID-19 patients to reduce their own risk of infection.