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Is coronavirus worse than the flu?

Many wonder what the big deal about coronavirus is.

"We have only had 2 deaths in Utah", they say.

"There are way more deaths from the flu", I hear.

Certainly, if you look at the number of COVID-19 cases in Utah in the first days of the outbreak it's easy to dismiss the impact of this pandemic. Early on, the number of cases are indeed low. But each case begets 3 others on average. Each of those infects 3 more, and so on. It is only a matter of weeks before the number of cases accumulate enough to resemble the steep curve that we are all familiar with. The chart below is Utah's cumulative case count based on cases reported on the state website.

Likewise, the death rate seems low. The number of deaths in Utah (2) divided by the total number of cases as of today (602), is 0.3%. The risk of death appears small.

COVID-19 cases in Utah - cumulative

The true number of cases, death rate, and impact of this pandemic won't be known for months to years, or even decades. Looking at the number of cases and the death rate early on in an outbreak, it's easy to underestimate the impact of what's to come.

We must, however, learn from the experience of China, Italy, Seattle, and New York. What happened there will happen here as well. There is no reason to think we will make it through this pandemic without suffering a significant toll.

Death rates from outbreaks, by definition, lag behind reported cases. From when a patient first becomes ill to when they either recover or die is a matter of weeks. The death rate from the cases identified today won't be known until a few weeks from now.

It is estimated that about 1% of people who are infected with coronavirus will die. This might not seem significant, but when you consider the massive number of people likely to become infected, 1% starts to feel serious. COVID-19 is more contagious than the flu (each infected person on average gets about 3 others sick). The estimates are that 40-60% of the population will eventually become infected. If 50% of the US population (165M) is eventually infected and 1% of them die, the US could lose 1.65M people!

In comparison, people with influenza infect about 1.3 others on average and the mortality rate is 0.1%. In 2018-2019 flu season, there were about 34,000 deaths in the US.

Why coronavirus is far more serious than influenza.

  • Coronavirus is very contagious.

  • The death rate of coronavirus is 10 times more than that of influenza.

  • The number of cases increase exponentially.

  • The death rate lags behind the case rate by weeks.

  • The first COVID case in the US just was just over 2 months ago and in Utah 1 month ago.

  • The entire pandemic is in its infancy.

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