The coronavirus has slowed its spread in China, but is now picking up speed in Europe and the U.S. As of March 3, 2020, the virus has spread to more than 89,700 people in at least 67 countries around the world, 3,000 of whom have died.
Those numbers may sound alarming, but when held up against influenza, or the flu, they don’t seem so frightening. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the U.S. alone, the flu has caused an estimated 32 million illnesses and 18,000 deaths this season.
Does that mean the flu is actually worse than the coronavirus?
While it may seem that way at first glance, it’s not so simple. Scientists have been studying seasonal flu, its symptoms and possible cures for decades. In contrast, there is very little known about the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19. Scientists and medical professionals are doing all they can to learn about this virus, but they are still months away from developing effective medication and vaccines.
Unfortunately, the first coronavirus death in the U.S. was recorded on Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020. Many Americans are beginning to wonder if there is any truth to the claim that the coronavirus is milder than the flu.
Let’s take a closer look at the known differences between influenza and COVID-19.
It’s difficult to give an accurate fatality rate to a virus that is still spreading, but the coronavirus seems to be more deadly than the flu. On average, seasonal flu kills approximately 0.10 percent of infected individuals. Researchers initially found the death rate for the COVID-19 virus to be 2.30 percent in mainland China, but a later study of hospitalized patients, published Feb. 28 in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that the overall death rate was lower, at roughly 1.40 percent.
Researchers have also found that the death rate for the coronavirus seems to vary by location, the infected individual’s age and the general state of their health. Many also claim the death rate is actually lower than it is believed to be, thanks to many unreported or symptom-free cases of the virus. There have also been no known coronavirus deaths of children under the age of 9.
According to the CDC, common flu symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, muscle aches, headaches, runny or stuffy nose, fatigue and, occasionally, vomiting and diarrhea as well. Flu is characterized by the sudden onset of symptoms. Recovery generally happens within two weeks of contracting the virus. Sometimes, the flu causes medical complications and necessitates hospitalization.
Symptoms of the coronavirus are still being studied. According to the CDC, reported symptoms have ranged from mild to severe, and typically include fever, cough and shortness of breath. Fatigue and muscle aches have been present in 11 to 44 percent of patients as well. Other, less-common symptoms include headache, sore throat, abdominal pain and diarrhea.
Rate of contagion
To date, the coronavirus seems to be more contagious than most strains of the flu, and about as contagious as strains that appear in pandemic flu seasons. Each person with the coronavirus appears to infect 2.2 other people, on average. Many experts claim this data is skewed since the epidemic was mismanaged at its outset and the rate of infection consequently soared. By comparison, each person with the seasonal flu infects approximately 1.3 other people.
As with most viral diseases, infected individuals can be contagious before the onset of any symptoms. Both viruses also spread easily through the air and contaminated surfaces, especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces.
Both COVID-19 and influenza are most dangerous to people who are older than 65, or have chronic illnesses or a compromised immune system.
The flu appears to be more dangerous to children, especially very young ones, while the coronavirus only triggers very mild symptoms in children or none at all. The flu is also a known danger to pregnant women. The coronavirus may pose a similar threat to expectant women, though it is still too early to know this with any certainty.
The coronavirus seems to be more deadly for older men. Death rates among men over 40 who have contracted the virus have exceeded those among women in the same age group. The higher rate of smokers among men, and by extension compromised lung function, may be the reason for this discrepancy.
Severity of the virus
As of Feb. 22, there were a minimum of 310,000 hospitalizations and 18,000 flu deaths among the 32 million cases of flu in the United States, according to the CDC. By contrast, as of March 3, approximately 100 people in the United States have been infected with the novel coronavirus, and there have been six deaths, all in Washington State.
Most cases of coronavirus infection are not severe, but some people do become quite sick. Data from the largest study of patients in China to date found that of coronavirus patients receiving medical attention, 80 percent had mild infections, approximately 15 percent had severe illnesses and 5 percent were in critical condition.
Antibiotics are ineffective against the coronavirus and the flu. However, there are four antiviral prescription drugs available to help mitigate the severity of flu symptoms and shorten its duration. Unfortunately, there are no approved antiviral medications available for the coronavirus just yet, though several are in the testing stages. Doctors recommend that infected individuals follow the general remedies for viral illnesses, including rest, increased fluid intake and painkillers.
Flu vaccines are widely available, and are 40-60 percent effective in protecting against the virus. In contrast, there is no vaccine available for the coronavirus. An experimental vaccine is currently being developed, but it will likely be a year or two before it is ready for widespread use.
In the wake of the arrival of COVID-19 on American shores, experts are urging all people who are not vaccinated against the flu to get their shot now. The flu vaccine will not protect against the coronavirus, but it will free up more hospital personnel, beds and equipment for treatment in case of a coronavirus outbreak in the U.S.
As always, proper hygiene is vital to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. The following guidelines can help keep you healthy:
- Wash your hands with antibacterial soap for at least 20 seconds after being out in public and before touching food.
- Keep unwashed hands away from your eyes and face.
- If you’re feeling unwell, stay home.
- Cough and sneeze into your elbows and not into your hands.
Information relevant as of March 6, 2020