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The Difference Between COVID-19 and the Flu

Preliminary figures from the latest influenza season, fall 2019 to spring 2020, showed between 24,000 and 62,000 people in the U.S. died from the flu. In comparison to the new coronavirus, which has sickened people faster in a shorter time frame, more than 200,000 deaths have been attributed to COVID-19 since it was first detected in the U.S. in January through the end of September. While there are similarities between the new coronavirus and the flu, there are significant differences as well.

Differences

  • At-risk populations: People most at-risk for severe flu illness are children, pregnant women, the elderly, individuals who are immunocompromised and those with underlying medical conditions. For COVID-19, those considered to be most at-risk for severe illness are older adults and those with underlying medical conditions. While children are at more risk of getting the flu, school-aged children infected with COVID-19 are at higher risk of Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C), a rare but severe complication of COVID-19.
  • Death rate: The death rate for COVID-19 is significantly higher than the flu.
  • Speed of transmission: The flu can spread faster than COVID-19 because flu symptoms often occur faster in an infected person than COVID-19. However, COVID-19 has been observed to have more superspreading events than the flu and may be more contagious among certain populations and age groups.
  • Treatments: While there are several antiviral therapeutic medications available to treat the flu, there is only one antiviral agent being explored as a treatment for COVID-19, which is available under an Emergency Use Authorization.
  • Vaccinations: There is an annual immunization for the flu. While there are clinical trials in development for a COVID-19 vaccine, there is not one available yet.
  • Virus: COVID-19 is caused by a newly discovered strain of coronavirus, which is called SARS-COV-2. In humans, the flu is caused by two types of virus: influenza A and influenza B. There are subtypes of each. For example, H1N1 is a subtype of influenza A and was responsible for the 2009 flu pandemic.

Similarities

  • Symptoms: Both COVID-19 and the flu cause many of the same respiratory disease symptoms, including fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue. However, COVID-19 could also cause a loss of taste or smell.
  • Transmission method: Both COVID-19 and the flu are transmitted by droplets through close contact. This means the same precautions will work against both illnesses: frequent hand washing, social distancing and wearing face coverings.

The Importance of the Flu Shot During the Pandemic

Though the flu shot will not protect individuals against COVID-19, the vaccine has many other important benefits. Having more people vaccinated against the seasonal flu will decrease the amount of people who get seriously ill from the flu this winter. As experts predict strained health care resources from new COVID-19 cases, keeping people healthy from other seasonal illnesses is especially critical.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends flu shots for everyone ages 6 months old and up. During the 2018-2019 flu season, 62.6% of children ages 6-17 years old and 43.5% of adults received a flu vaccine nationally, according to the CDC. The CDC estimates that increasing the number of people vaccinated – even by five percentage points – could prevent thousands of hospitalizations from the flu.

Each year, the flu shot helps protect individuals against the dominant strains of the flu virus that experts predict will be the most active during the fall, winter and early spring months. Flu season typically begins in October and peaks in December and February – though cases can continue through the spring. The 2020-2021 flu vaccine is available at doctor’s offices, pharmacies and clinics, and the CDC recommends getting the shot as early as September or October.

Dr. S. George Kipa, MD, is the deputy chief medical officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.  

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