Doctor says impact of flu not equivalent to COVID-19, discourages comparison

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Influenza and COVID-19 are both classified as coronaviruses.

But while the flu can be fatal — 2018 data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control report 1,118 Hoosier deaths were attributed to influenza — the question still remains: Why is SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, so much more deadly?

News 8 asked Dr. Elaine Hanh Le, chief medical officer at Healthline, to explain.

Le: With the flu — from year to year — it’s caused by multiple different viral strains and we have vaccinations and we have treatments that can decrease the severity and the duration of the flu and what we’ve seen over the course of the past 10 years, deaths attributed to the flu can account from anywhere between 12,000 and 60,000, depending on the source. 

In the first 10 months of COVID-19 in 2020, we’ve already seen over 250,000 deaths from the coronavirus alone in the U.S. and based upon those numbers, it’s hard to argue that COVID-19 is less or even equivocal in terms of its impact versus the flu. 

Part of that reason is that we have never encountered the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) before. We didn’t have any natural immunity to it. 

We also didn’t do a very good job of preventing the transmission from it. As a respiratory virus, it’s very contagious and travels quickly from person to person, particularly with close contact and enclosed environments with prolonged contact. We also don’t have a reliable treatment or preventive measures such as a vaccine. 

So, unlike the flu, with COVID-19 we don’t have an arsenal, that is, something that we can pull out of the toolkit just yet to protect us like we have from the flu.  

News 8’s medical reporter, Dr. Mary Elizabeth Gillis, D.Ed., is a classically trained medical physiologist and biobehavioral research scientist. She has been a health, medical and science reporter for over 5 years. Her work has been featured in national media outlets. You can follow her on Instagram @reportergillis and Facebook @DrMaryGillis.