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Despite its 'nothingburger' reputation, COVID-19 remains deadlier than the flu

Karen Kaplan, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Health & Fitness

Since the earliest days of the pandemic, health officials have gauged the threat of COVID-19 by comparing it to the flu.

At first, it wasn't even close. People hospitalized in 2020 with the then-novel respiratory disease were five times more likely to die of their illness than were patients who had been hospitalized with influenza during the preceding flu seasons.

Immunity from vaccines and past coronavirus infections has helped tame COVID-19 to the point that when researchers compared the mortality rates of hospitalized COVID-19 and seasonal influenza patients during the height of the 2022-23 flu season, they found that the pandemic disease was only 61% more likely to result in death.

Now the same researchers have analyzed data for the the fall and winter of 2023 and 2024. Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly, director of the Clinical Epidemiology Center at the VA St. Louis Health Care System, and his colleagues expected to find that the two respiratory diseases had finally equalized.

"There's a narrative out there that the pandemic is over, that it's a nothingburger," Al-Aly said. "We came into this thinking we would do this rematch and find it would be like the flu from now on."

The VA team examined electronic health records of patients treated in Veterans Affairs hospitals in all 50 states between Oct. 1 and March 27. They zeroed in on patients who were admitted because they had fevers, shortness of breath or other symptoms due to either COVID-19 or influenza. (People who were admitted for another reason, such as a heart attack, and were then found to have a coronavirus infection weren't included in the analysis.)

 

The COVID-19 patients were a little older, on average, than the flu patients (73.9 versus 70.2 years old), and they were less likely to be current or former smokers. They were also more likely to have received at least three doses of COVID-19 vaccine and less likely to have shunned the shots altogether.

Yet after Al-Aly and his colleagues accounted for these differences and a host of other factors, they found that 5.7% of the COVID-19 patients died of their disease, compared with 4.2% of the influenza patients.

In other words, the risk of death from COVID-19 was still 35% greater than it was for the flu. The findings were published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Assn.

"There is undeniably an impression out there that (COVID-19) is no longer a major threat to human health," Al-Aly said. "I think it's largely driven by opinion and an emotional itch to move beyond the pandemic, to put it all behind us. We want to believe that it's like the flu, and we did — until we saw the data."

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