Since the emergence of COVID-19, pundits, politicians, self-appointed experts on social media — even journalists – have compared it to the flu.
But is this a useful comparison? Does it really tell us anything about either disease?
And influenza is a serious illness, causing between 140,000 and 810,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 to 61,000 deaths each year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, the flu is a familiar illness, appearing every year at the same time along with a new vaccine that affords significant protection against the current strain.
In contrast, COVID-19 is new, and much about it remains unknown. That makes it seem scarier than the flu.
“People are always most worried about things they don’t know about. Your anxiety goes down (when) you know what to expect,” said Dr. Richard Wallace, a professor of microbiology and infectious disease specialist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler.
Physicians and public health officials are still learning about COVID-19, said Dr. Jeffrey Levin, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at the health science center.
“We’d all like the response to (this disease outbreak) to be perfect from the beginning. But that’s not realistic,” Levin said, adding that COVID-19 appeared only two-and-a-half months ago.
“In a very short time, we’ve learned a lot,” said the former dean of the health science center’s School of Community Health and Health Professions. “We should listen carefully to what the experts have to say. And then really turn this over to the experts, leave it out of the political realm.”
Medical professionals, health care providers and public health experts are the ones to lead this effort, he said. Plans to treat and isolate infected people and to quarantine their families and others they might have exposed to COVID-19 must be developed locally.
“All public health is local. This is a national-scale event. But it is really a local event,” Levin said. Cases of the disease will occur within communities, so preparing for them must be a local effort.
State and federal public health agencies can provide guidance and financial support, but it will be local actions that contain the disease and lessen its impact, he said.
Wallace said the flu and COVID-19 are respiratory diseases. The flu virus primarily affects the upper respiratory tract: the nasal passages, sinuses and throat above the vocal cords.
However, the coronavirus infects the lower respiratory tract, the windpipe and the airways within the lungs. That makes COVID-19 more serious.
“If your lungs get sick, you’re in trouble,” Wallace said.
COVID-19 and the flu are transmitted when an infected person coughs or sneezes tiny droplets containing virus particles into the air.
These droplets rarely travel more than 6 feet, he said. If you stay more than 6 feet away from an infected person, you’re unlikely to catch COVID-19.
COVID-19 studies conducted in China suggest that people exposed to this disease usually contract it, he added.
One study of 50,000 people showed that about 80 percent of those infected have a mild case of the disease, while 20 percent become seriously ill, Wallace said.
“That means one in five patients with coronavirus is sick enough to be in the hospital,” he continued.
While the overall COVID-19 mortality rate is unknown, it’s likely higher than that of the flu, which is less than 1 percent, he said. Coronavirus’ mortality rate could be as high as 2 or 3 percent.
But it’s clear that the older you are, the greater your chance of becoming seriously ill if you catch it, Wallace said.
“People over 80 have a 20 percent chance of severe disease or death” after contracting COVID-19, Wallace said.
Because many people 80 or older have underlying chronic conditions such as heart disease, the flu is equally dangerous to them.
And it’s not too late to get a flu shot, the CDC says, though flu season ends in a couple of months.
Levin stressed that the flu vaccine does not protect you from the coronavirus.
“As to how it helps with COVID-19, although the flu vaccine is not 100 percent effective, having received it can help the medical community more quickly consider other causes of a respiratory illness with fever,” he said.
If COVID-19 appears in Northeast Texas, its impact depends on how many people become seriously ill, Wallace said.
“It is fine if we have three cases (that require hospitalization). … It’s not fine if we have 300 cases,” he said. Area medical centers would not have the capacity to treat that many patients at once.
“All people with severe disease would have to go to the hospital. They would need medical support. They couldn’t go home,” Wallace said.
“The problem with (COVID-19) is that it hasn’t been around long enough, and we don’t know how bad it’s going to get,” he said.
“That’s why research is so important. Look at all we know two months after the virus appeared. We know its genetics. We can use the DNA to track down where the virus originated, in bats,” Wallace said, and that it’s related to SARS and MERS.
“It’s too early to panic. … There are things you can do to protect yourself. Rely on the scientific world that is working very hard to come up with the answers” about COVID-19, Wallace said.