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One Chart Explains Why COVID-19 Is Worse Than the Flu

COVID-19 is much worse than the flu. Anyone who says otherwise is either lying, or does not know what they are talking about.
April 15, 2020
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1. Science Talk

By now you have probably seen people explaining that, “Actually, the coronavirus pandemic is not much different from the flu and all of this fuss is just a big overreaction.”

Or, “More people die in car accidents every year and you don’t see us shutting down auto travel, you big bunch of ninnies.”

It’s hard to know whether these arguments are just partisan bs meant to alibi Donald Trump, or if they are serious beliefs resulting from a misunderstanding of data.

For a moment, let’s pretend it’s the latter.

This piece in the New Atlantis by my friends Ari Schulman, Sam Matlack, and Brendan Foht is one of the best, most helpful, and important pieces to be published about the pandemic.

You should click on it, bookmark it, share it on Facebook and Twitter, print it out, and send it to everyone you know.

But in case it’s a little more data-driven than you’re used to, I want to walk you through it here.

One of the mistakes being made by people who think that COVID-19 is “just like the flu” is that they don’t actually understand the reported death numbers for either virus.

The number most often cited for annual flu deaths is 60,000. This number is a composite. It includes a relatively small number of deaths directly ascribed to influenza (meaning, there was a positive flu-test involved) PLUS a much larger number of deaths from pneumonia, where it is assumed that because flu-like symptoms were present, the influenza virus was likely at play.

This is the exact opposite of how we’ve been tabulating COVID-19 deaths.

So right from the beginning, the COVID-19 and flu death numbers are apples and oranges:

  • The “flu death” numbers are mostly deaths that we assume are related to influenza, even though only a small minority of them were proven to have influenza present.
  • The COVID-19 numbers are made up only of deaths that have an accompanying positive test for coronavirus and leave out deaths from COVID-19 like symptoms.

That’s the measurement problem. There are other problems, too, which have to do with the rate of infection.

Take a look at this graph and you should understand why COVID-19 is fundamentally different from the flu:

Now you get it, yes?

The light blue line along the bottom represents new weekly deaths from the deadliest flu season in recent times (the 2017-2018 flu).

The yellow line shows the new weekly deaths from that flu season plus deaths from pneumonia—which is that composite number we were just talking about.

And the red line is COVID-19.

Now, look at how steep the yellow curve is when it first begins inflecting around Week 13.

And then look at how steep the red curve is at Week 5.

This is why we shut the country down.

(1) The absolute magnitude of weekly deaths for COVID-19 was already bigger than the largest magnitude for the entire flu season by Week 6 and by Week 7 was double the magnitude of the worst of flu season. And it was still increasing.

(2) That’s if you compare COVID-19 to the composite yellow line. Go ahead and compare it to the blue flu-only line (since that’s the better analog in terms of real tabulation of deaths) and we are already at 800 percent of the peak weekly death-rate.

(3) And this is with the imposition of drastic suppression methods.

Coronavirus is so much more dangerous to the American people than the flu that anyone who suggests equivalency is either deliberately lying, or does not know what they are talking about.

Give them this explainer, and then you’ll know which is which.