Apples and Oranges, COVID-19 and Flu

Comparisons of COVID-19 to influenza have been used to downplay the seriousness of the pandemic. As you might imagine, there has been a lot of ‘data torturing’ to argue that COVID-19 deaths, which have now passed 60,000 in the U.S., aren’t greater than a bad flu season. Of course, that argument is based on a misunderstanding–and misuse–of the data (boldface mine):

The annual flu mortality figures published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are estimates produced by plugging laboratory-confirmed deaths into a mathematical model that attempts to correct for undercounting. Covid-19 death figures represent a literal count of people who have either tested positive for the virus or whose diagnosis was based on meeting certain clinical and epidemiological criteria.

Such a comparison is of the apples to oranges variety, Faust writes, as the former are “inflated statistical estimates” and the latter are “actual numbers.”

To get a more accurate comparison, one must start with the number of directly confirmed flu deaths, which the CDC tracks on an annual basis. In the past seven flu seasons, going back to 2013, that tally fluctuated between 3,448 and 15,620 deaths.

Note that these numbers are very different from the CDC’s final official flu death estimates. For 2018-2019, for instance, the 7,172 confirmed flu deaths translated to a final estimate of between 26,339 and 52,664 deaths. Again, that’s because the CDC plugs the confirmed deaths into a model that attempts to adjust for what many epidemiologists believe is a severe undercount

Using an apples-to-apples comparison, we can say that the coronavirus has already killed eight times as many people as the flu. By the time we get data for the entire season, the difference appears likely to be at least tenfold, or a full order of magnitude.

It’s going to be worse than the flu–a lot worse, especially if we don’t do the things we need to do.

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