Here's How Deadly COVID-19 Is Compared to the Flu

Research suggests that coronavirus has a death rate fifty times higher than that of the flu.

Coronavirus and the flu have obvious parallels—they're both highly infectious and potentially deadly respiratory illnesses with many similar symptoms, including headaches, fatigue, and fever. However, when it comes to the mortality rates associated with each disease, coronavirus is far deadlier.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), during the 2018-2019 flu season, an estimated 34,200 people died from the influenza virus—or 0.1 percent of the estimated 35.5 million individuals who contracted it that year. In contrast, 2,275,645 cases of coronavirus have been reported in the United States, with 119,923 total deaths. That adds up to a mortality rate of 5 percent, making it approximately 50 times as deadly as the flu. However, those numbers may not tell the whole story—inadequate access to testing throughout the U.S. and the countless individuals who may have had coronavirus and recovered before being tested could skew those percentages significantly.

The people at greatest risk for coronavirus and flu-related deaths are typically older individuals, with the death rate for both illnesses spiking dramatically after age 65. In the case of the flu, individuals over 65 accounted for approximately 75 percent of flu deaths during the 2018-2019 flu season, while approximately 80 percent of coronavirus deaths came from that same age range.

asian man hospitalized with coronavirus wearing face mask on blood pressure monitor
Shutterstock/Supoj Pongpancharoen

There are a number of potential factors that have influenced the dramatic disparity in the death rates of the two illnesses. Most notably is the availability of a flu vaccine, which was administered to 45.3 percent of U.S. adults during or prior to the 2018-2019 flu season, as per the CDC. Research suggests that even a flu vaccine with a low rate of efficacy could be responsible for saving a huge number of lives. According to a 2018 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a flu vaccine with just a 20 percent efficacy rate given to just 43 percent of the population could cut flu deaths by 61,812 in a single year.

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The relatively high number of asymptomatic coronavirus cases is a potential factor as well, due to infected individuals who don't show symptoms potentially not taking adequate precautions against transmitting the illness to others, including quarantining themselves. While CDC data suggests that up to 35 percent of individuals with coronavirus don't know they have it, a 2015 study published in Epidemiology suggests that just 16 percent of flu cases are likely to be asymptomatic.

Considering the significant mortality rate related to coronavirus, following the guidelines outlined by public health officials is still essential—including washing hands and wearing masks—even as states continue to reopen. According to an April 2020 probability model study led by researchers at UC Berkeley's International Computer Science Institute, simply increasing the portion of people wearing masks from 50 percent to 80 percent could save 180,000 lives from coronavirus-related deaths. So, if you hear anyone calling coronavirus "just another flu," go ahead and set them straight. And if you want to make sure you're adequately protecting yourself and others, check out these 7 Signs You Need to Replace Your Face Mask ASAP.

Sarah Crow
Sarah Crow is a senior editor at Eat This, Not That!, where she focuses on celebrity news and health coverage. Read more
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