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Comparing COVID-19, Flu Death Tolls ‘Extremely Dangerous’

What your doctor is reading on Medscape.com:

MAY 14, 2020 — The number of COVID-19 deaths cannot be directly compared to the number of seasonal influenza deaths because they are calculated differently, researchers say in a report released today.

Whereas COVID-19 death rates are determined from actual counts of people who have died, seasonal influenza death rates are estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) using population modeling algorithms, explains Jeremy Samuel Faust, MD, with Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Division of Health Policy and Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts.

The CDC estimates that between 24,000 and 62,000 people died from influenza during the 2019–2020 season (through April 4). At the time of the analysis (as of April 28), COVID-19 deaths had reached 65,000 in the United States.

Some government officials and others have said the numbers seem similar and have used the comparison as an argument for reopening certain areas.

But making that comparison “is extremely dangerous,” Faust told Medscape Medical News.

“COVID-19 is far more dangerous and is wreaking far more havoc than seasonal influenza ever has,” he said.

Faust coauthored the perspective article, published online in JAMA Internal Medicine, with Carlos del Rio, MD, Division of Infectious Diseases at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia.

The message and methodology of Faust’s and del Rio’s article are on target, according to Jonathan L. Temte, MD, PhD, who has been working in influenza surveillance for almost 25 years.

Current flu data draw on limited information from primary care practices and hospitals, said Temte, associate dean for public health and community engagement at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison. The estimates help bridge the gaps, he said, but the system is inherently vulnerable to error.

“Comparing them ― as so many people in this country have done ― to try to diminish the impact of SARS-CoV2 is not fair,” he said.

Estimated vs Actual Influenza Deaths

The authors illustrate the difference in the way rates of death from influenza are calculated: “Between 2013–2014 and 2018–2019, the reported yearly estimated influenza deaths ranged from 23,000 to 61,000. Over that same time period, however, the number of counted influenza deaths was between 3448 and 15,620 yearly.”

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