About How COVID is Worse Than Influenza

Deaths caused by influenza (the flu) in the United States are not tracked in the same way that COVID deaths have been tracked over the last 18 months. The number of deaths is an estimated number. Still, even the estimates can give us a sense of the human cost. According to multiple sources, the flu has caused somewhere between 20,000 and 60,000 deaths per year over the last decade. The flu season of 2017-18 was particularly bad and represents the high end of that range.

The current count of COVID related deaths since the beginning of the pandemic is 588,000 – nearly an order of magnitude higher.

But let us say for a minute that those numbers are not comparable. The number of flu deaths is only an estimate. There are people who don't truly believe the reported death toll from COVID. Some claim the number is exaggerated. Others suggest the number is an undercount. Also, the pandemic has been going on for more than 18 months, whereas flu seasons are generally only the winter months. Fair enough. Let’s try something else.

According to an article in Scientific American, there have been 600 flu-related deaths in the United States for the 2020-2021 flu season. An article in Today cited a report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that there were only 292 flu deaths, including only 1 pediatric death.

If we take those numbers -- a range between 292 and 600 -- and compare it to the yearly estimates for the past decade, we can see that flu deaths are down to about 1% of what is usual. Even if these figures are off by an order of magnitude, that is still an incredible decrease.

So, during a period of time when COVID raged in the US (infections and deaths hit highs during January and February of this year), influenza was almost absent. COVID was not stopped by public health measures such as distancing, wearing of masks, and hand hygiene; but these things nearly wiped out influenza.

So, yes, I think it's safe to say that COVID is in a different league than the flu. The flu is high school varsity; COVID is major league.