If flu deaths were counted like COVID-19 deaths, the worst recent flu season evidently killed 15,620 Americans

Peter Weber

The U.S. now has more than 63,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths, and most experts say that's almost certainly an undercount. Still, if you compare that number to the 2017-18 flu season, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates killed 61,000 people, it looks like COVID-19 might be similar to a bad flu — President Trump has made this point, as have many conservative media personalities. But the data so far show that this new coronavirus is much more lethal than the flu, and Dr. Jeremy Samuel Faust has an explanation.

Faust, a Harvard Medical School instructor and emergency physician at Brigham & Women's Hospital in Boston, wrote in Scientific American that he started wondering about the flu-to-COVID comparisons when it occurred to him that in nearly eight years of hospital work, "I had almost never seen anyone die of the flu." Neither had any of the colleagues he called around the country. So he did some research, and this is what he found:

The 25,000 to 69,000 numbers that Trump cited do not represent counted flu deaths per year; they are estimates that the CDC produces by multiplying the number of flu death counts reported by various coefficients produced through complicated algorithms. These coefficients are based on assumptions of how many cases, hospitalizations, and deaths they believe went unreported. In the last six flu seasons, the CDC's reported number of actual confirmed flu deaths — that is, counting flu deaths the way we are currently counting deaths from the coronavirus — has ranged from 3,448 to 15,620. [Jeremy Faust, Scientific American]

So in an apples-to-apples comparison, matching the second week of April's COVID-19 deaths to the worst week of the past seven flu seasons, "the novel coronavirus killed between 9.5 and 44 times more people than seasonal flu," Faust writes. Read his entire essay at Scientific American.

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