Health Advice



Do you still think coronavirus is just like the flu? Here's why COVID-19 is more dangerous.

Stacey Burling, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Health & Fitness

First, some good news.

Flu season is effectively over, according to Nate Wardle, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Cases had dropped enough that the department stopped producing its weekly flu reports at the end of March.

That doesn't mean the flu is gone. But it does mean that doctors can focus more resources on that other threat, the coronavirus.

The coronavirus has already outstripped flu as a killer in Pennsylvania, leading to 309 deaths compared with 102 deaths in laboratory-confirmed flu cases this year. During the 2017-18 flu season, the worst in the last five years, there were 258 flu deaths.

Some models predict that fatalities in this first wave of coronavirus will peak locally in mid-April, but there will be weeks of illness and death after that.

Thirteen weeks into the coronavirus era, some still question whether the new disease is bad enough to warrant an economic shutdown when influenza, a disease that kills thousands every year, is treated as an annual inconvenience. Some Twitter users, including the conservative radio host Bill Mitchell, call the coronavirus "flu lite." A Pew Research Survey released April 1 and conducted from March 10 to 16 found that 79% of regular Fox News viewers believed the news media had exaggerated the risks of the new virus.


Gregory A. Poland, a Mayo Clinic infectious diseases specialist who acts as a spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, said the question always comes up when he does radio talk shows: "Isn't this just the flu or a 'bad flu'?"

John J. Zurlo, chief of the division of infectious diseases at Jefferson Health, thinks the answer is clear. Both diseases can kill, but the scale of the coronavirus problem, he said, is "much, much larger."

There are some obvious reasons to compare flu and coronavirus. The viruses can cause similar symptoms, including fever and body aches. Both are more likely to cause serious illness and death in people over age 65. This year's flu virus has been unusually tough on children, while the coronavirus seems to largely spare them. Like all illnesses, Poland said, both cause a wide range of symptoms, with some people unaware they've been infected and others made deathly sick.

A huge difference is that there are vaccines for flu each fall. They're not perfect, but when well-matched to the circulating strains of flu, which change every year, they reduce the number of cases and the amount of serious disease. There is no vaccine for the coronavirus, which can cause a disease that no one in the world had before it emerged in China in December. Unlike the flu, there are no proven antiviral treatments for coronavirus.


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