Opinion: Why coronavirus is different than the flu, and why we need to "flatten the curve"

by Joe Carter · Mar 15th, 2020 9:32 am
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Last Updated Mar 15th, 2020 at 2:49 pm

A question I've received recently and hear often online is, "Why are we more concerned about COVID-19 than we are the yearly flu, which kills more people?" It's a reasonable question, so I thought I'd compile a simple answer based on my research on this topic. Below is my reply to a few questions I received recently:

In your research on coronavirus, how does it compare to the normal yearly flu in relation to deaths worldwide? What makes this strand of flu more dangerous? Is it the respiratory aspect? We don't seem as concerned about the yearly flu that takes so many lives.

COVID-19 (short for novel coronavirus 2019) is a strain of coronavirus, not a strain of flu. What we call "flu" is several different types and strains of influenza viruses. Coronaviruses are a different and distinct type of virus. For example, COVID-19 appears to be able to be transmitted through the air more easily than influenza. This is why COVID-19 is able to spread more rapidly than influenza.

The key reason this virus is potentially more dangerous than the flu is because we have no protection against it. For all of us alive today, strains of the flu have existed our entire life. Almost everyone gets the flu at some stage of life and are therefore able to build up immunity. We also have vaccines created each year that protect people from new strains. Despite these immunities, we still have 291,000 to 646,000 deaths worldwide from the flu each year.

Now imagine a new ("novel") virus pops us, on which we've never built up an immunity to and for which have no vaccines created. Add to that the fact that this virus is about 7-10 times more lethal than the average strain of influenza. That's COVID-19.

Because of these factors, COVID-19 has the potential to kill many more times as many people as are killed by the flu (if we had the same number of COVID-19 cases as H1N1 (flu)cases, it would mean 1,879,744 deaths). The COVID-19 infections also have to be treated in addition to the hospitalizations and deaths that occur from influenza. Our healthcare system already becomes strained each year during flu season, so adding tens or hundreds of COVID-19 cases at one time would stretch our system to the breaking point (as it has done in Italy).

That is why social distancing and other mitigation efforts are essential. Since we cannot currently stop the spread of the disease, we want to slow it as much as possible to keep the system (and our ability to respond) from being overloaded.

The primary benefit of social distancing is that it helps to "flatten" the epidemic curve (i.e., a statistical chart used to visualize when and at what speed new cases are reported). The goal isn't necessarily to reduce the total number of people who get the virus (which we may not be able to do before a vaccine is ready) but rather to reduce the number of people who have the virus at one time.

The chart below shows two possible outcomes. A sharp peak indicates a surge of coronavirus outbreak in the near term (the next few weeks), while the flatter slope represents a more gradual rate of infection over a longer period of time:

The reason it is essential to "flatten the curve" is because hospitals can become overwhelmed, increasing the number of deaths not only from the coronavirus but also for other conditions that are not able to be treated because of the strain on the healthcare system.

We can show love for our neighbors—especially our immunocompromised neighbors—by taking precautions now to mitigate the effect of this pandemic.


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