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Is the flu more dangerous than coronavirus?

A Fulton County official said Tuesday the flu was still a greater concern than COVID-19.

ATLANTA — By now, surely you have heard somebody compare the COVID-19 coronavirus spreading worldwide and raising fears in communities around the country to something that seems, well, far less threatening: the flu.

"I know this is a new virus, but the flu is still more dangerous than COVID-19," Dr. Elizabeth Ford, Fulton County's interim district health director, said Tuesday. "The same precautions that we use to prevent the flu are the same precautions that need to be used to prevent COVID-19."

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Because comparing the flu's deadliness to coronavirus is such a widespread talking point - President Trump is among those who have made the comparison - it's worth examining in detail:

Mortality: Flu, it is frequently said, kills many more people than coronavirus. And that is true:  According to the most recent CDC estimate, covering Oct. 1-Feb. 22, there have been 18,000-46,000 flu deaths this flu season. That is many, many more than the 11 deaths so far reported from COVID-19 in the U.S.

That doesn't tell the whole story, though. The CDC also estimates there have been roughly 32-45 million flu cases. At the high end, that gives influenza a .001 percent death rate in the U.S., which is also consistent with data the agency's annual data since 2010.

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According to the World Health Organization, about 3.4 percent of confirmed cases worldwide have been fatal. The "real" death rate for coronavirus is likely much lower than that - because it is new, gaps in detection, testing and confirmation mean there are likely scores of cases that simply went unreported, did not require hospitalization and, of course, did not result in death.

The BBC reports that UK officials believe it is likely 2 percent or lower, and The New York Times reports a medical journal estimated it was as low as 1.4 percent.

Even just 1 percent, though, would represent a significantly higher mortality rate than the regular flu. 

If COVID-19 spread to the extent flu does, it would likely result in many more deaths - one reason health officials are so eager to contain it.


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