COVID-19, Seasonal Influenza, and Swine Flu

The month of September shot by like a lightning bolt, and we are now in the final quarter of the year- and into month 8 of COVID-19 in the United States. We’re also in the beginning of flu season.

When the novel virus made its debut in February, there was plenty of confusion and misinformation to last us a lifetime, or at the very least a presidency. The first lie that people touted was “it’s just the flu!” This seemed to be the way people comforted themselves the most from the unknown, and the easiest way to pass off any personal responsibility if they themselves became a vector for the virus and end up killing someone. Then the death tolls started racking up and that argument quickly fell to the wayside, but it’s one that still bothers me- so I looked up the numbers. In this blog, I’m also including the Swine Flu, an illness so many like to use as a diversion tactic as to why this administrations handling of this was far less catastrophic than Obama’s, and we’ll address why that is a lie as well.

The worst flu season in recent memory actually occurred in the 2017–2018 flu season, which is the last year of completed, verified data. There was between 291,000 and 646,000 estimated deaths in the 2017–2018 flu season, up from the average 250,000 to 500,000 deaths worldwide. There was 45,000,000 cases of influenza in the US, with 80,000 deaths from the illness. So of the people who had the flu in the 2017–2018 flu season in the US, .17% died from it. When combined with the ways we have to treat influenza along with a well-established vaccine, the mortality rate is quite low. The current mortality rate among COVID-19 patients is 3% with 7 million sick and 211,000 dead. So yes- COVID is exponentially more deadly than the flu, but it’s really comparing apples to oranges considering the illnesses are in two different virus families. It’s like comparing the common cold virus to HIV. Both are viruses, true, but they don’t do the same thing, especially with COVID being more and more categorized as a vascular disease rather than a respiratory one.

Anti-COVID groups also like to point to the Obama administration’s handling of the Swine Flu. There was an estimated 61,000,000 cases of Swine Flu in the US, with 12,500 confirmed deaths- a .02 mortality rate. Given its name of “Swine Flu” it’s easy to figure out it was a strain from the same family as seasonal influenza, which means its treatments were the same. We’ve become quite knowledgeable in treating influenza and have an understanding of its workings. The Swine Flu was treated with the same treatments as the regular flu: lots of rest, fluids, and antivirals. Having proper treatment already in place greatly increased the rate of recovery. The fact that most cases effected those between the ages of 18 and 64 also probably contributed with a low mortality rate. Of those 65 and older who had H1N1, approximately 1,550 died with the highest rate of deaths being in the 18–64 age group at 9,200 deaths. With H1N1, a formal Pandemic Team was put into place by the Obama administration. This team successfully helped in the mitigation of the Ebola outbreak in 2014. But with all the information we had about how to treat Swine Flu, it’s not hard to figure out why we didn’t shut down the economy. In short- we knew more about it than we know about COVID-19. We’ve also experienced twice as many deaths in half the amount of time in relation to COVID vs the seasonal flu- a harsh reminder of COVID-19’s lethality.

This argument of “the flu is worse” dropping off into the abyss is something that I appreciate, but haven’t forgotten. I still think some people believe this, despite the science and high mortality rate telling them otherwise. The empathist in me finds it hard to fault them. Turning a blind eye seems so much easier than to deal with what it really is- a deadly new virus that we still know very little about and have only started developing semi-effective treatments for. However, the logical person in me knows the severity of the issue at hand and it angers me to the core that people are being willfully ignorant. The seriousness of the situation cannot be understated. Having a president who has made it his goal to downplay the virus also had catastrophic consequences. The economy is collapsing, people are dying, and many are suffering from shelter and food insecurity. Now is not the time to play politics, it’s the time to come together and take care of each other. It feels like some people missed the memo in kindergarten about being kind and caring. Maybe they were just raised with terrible parents who showed and taught no empathy or consideration. No matter, we’re all failing each other and taking pride in it. This pandemic has brought out the absolute worst in some, but has also shown a light on the generous and selfless. I hope we see more of that. We could all really use it right now.

Note: all information can be found on the CDC and WHO’s websites.