DETROIT – If seasonal flu kills tens of thousands of people every year and we don’t shut down the economy, why are we shutting down everything for the coronavirus (COVID-19)?
This is a question that many people have asked Dr. Frank McGeorge of Local 4 since the start of the pandemic, and it seems particularly relevant as politicians debate when and how to reopen businesses.
One of the biggest differences we’ve seen between the two is how viruses hit a community. The flu season lasts for several months each year, while COVID-19 cases have struck in a much more concentrated fashion.
For example, COVID-19 recently killed as many New Yorkers in three days as seasonal flu usually does for an entire year.
Make no mistake: seasonal flu is also deadly.
Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that up to 56 million Americans contracted seasonal flu from last October to early April.
Between 24,000 and 62,000 Americans have died from the flu.
In comparison, COVID-19 cases are now approaching 600,000 in the country, with more than 25,000 deaths.
With limited testing, we don’t know how many Americans have actually been infected with the coronavirus, but remember, we also have a vaccine and annual treatments to help limit the impact of seasonal flu.
Some people also have some level of natural flu immunity from previous exposure to similar strains.
There is no vaccine against the coronavirus, no proven treatment and no natural immunity because it is a new virus.
Without the social isolation and closures currently in place, the coronavirus would spread to communities much faster than the flu, straining the medical system.
COVID-19 patients also tend to be sick longer. The median length of hospital stay for an adult with influenza is just under three days. In Seattle, for COVID-19 patients, the median stay was 12 to 17 days, most of whom were in the intensive care unit.
Another major difference is the level of personal protective equipment required. When doctors treat an influenza patient, they do not need N-95 masks or face masks, but they do need these items around COVID-19 patients to reduce their own risk of infection.
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