A study shows that seasonal flu kills as many as 60,000 Americans every year. The latest coronavirus updates show that COVID-19 has killed more than 60,000 — across the whole world. And this number is expected to go up. Way up.
Every year, tens of thousands of people die of the flu. But we haven’t had this for a year yet. We’ve only had this for a few months. The trouble is coming, and we can predict it, and we can see what’s coming, at least to a certain extent.
The first really big difference between COVID-19 and the flu is how long it takes you to feel sick. From the moment you’re infected with COVID-19, it normally takes five days before you start to feel symptoms. But it can take as long as 12 or even 14 days. This is the incubation period: the time between when you catch it, and when you first realize you’re sick.
And scientists think you could be contagious during most of this period. The flu, by comparison, has an average incubation period of just two days. You get sick, and pretty soon you feel sick, and you know you’re contagious. This is what we’re used to.
But COVID-19 flips that around. You can be contagious and spreading it around for several days, and up to two weeks, before it even occurs to you that you’re sick.
And that leads to the next big difference. No human immune system had seen this virus before. Nobody has a natural immunity to it.
In the flu season, there’s always a number of people in the population who are already immune to the flu. That can be because they got their flu shot, or maybe because they’ve already had that flu strain. And that limits the spread of the virus.
When one person is contagious with the flu, they can only spread it to people who aren’t immune. Who can only spread it to other people who aren’t immune? That’s why scientists and doctors urge us to get our flu shot every year: If enough people have immunity, they can kind of shield the virus from reaching others. The more immunized people, the more they can protect those that are susceptible to the virus.
But COVID-19 is brand new. None of us have had it before, and there’s no vaccine. Which means nearly everyone on the planet is susceptible. So when a contagious person, who may not even know they’re infected, comes into contact with others, it can spread like wildfire.
You have already seen how much more dangerous COVID-19 can be. Only 2% of people with the flu need to be hospitalized. But 20 to even 30% of people who test positive for COVID-19 do. And we’re still learning about COVID-19’s fatality rate, but scientists think its somewhere between 1 and 3%.
But the flu’s rate is even lower: 0.1%. And that’s a disease that can kill 60,000 people a year in the US alone. That’s what Dr. Anthony Fauci, the US’s leading infectious disease expert, tried to clear up to Congress.”People always say, well, the flu does this, the flu does that. The flu has a mortality of 0.1%. This has a mortality of ten times that. This is a really serious problem that we have to take seriously.”And he’s just talking about the average across all age groups.
For older people or people with weak immune systems, it can be way higher. And that’s especially scary when you remember all the other things that are different about COVID-19: The infectiousness, how hard it is to know that you have it, how susceptible we all are to it. Estimates vary, but some scientists have warned that between 20 and 60% of the world’s population could become infected with the virus. Since COVID-19 has no cure and no vaccine, the only defense we have against it is social.
We can take prevent ourselves — not with immunity, but with social distancing. Just physically not being around anyone, and staying home as much as possible. But that only works if each of us takes it seriously.
This is why comparing it to the flu, while understandable, is not helpful. It’s natural to want to find a comparison, to want to make this seem small. When we use the flu as the backdrop, it almost numbs us, or it can numb us, and make us maybe even feel better about the current situation. Because the current situation is bad. So now is not the time to be numb. We need to be vigilant, and then use our vigilance for useful actions.