Comparing recorded deaths
It’s more accurate and meaningful to compare actual numbers of deaths for the diseases, Dr. Faust and Dr. del Rio say in their article.
When the authors made that comparison, they drew a stark contrast.
There were 15,455 recorded COVID-19 deaths in the week that ended April 21. The week before, the number of recorded deaths was 14,478, they found. (Those were the two most recent weeks before they submitted their article for publication.)
In comparison, counted deaths ranged from 351 to 1,626 during the peak week of the seven influenza seasons between 2013-2014 and 2019-2020. The average counted deaths for the peak week of the seven seasons was 752.4 (95% confidence interval, 558.8-946.1).
“These statistics on counted deaths suggest that the number of COVID-19 deaths for the week ending April 21 was 9.5-fold to 44.1-fold greater than the peak week of counted influenza deaths during the past seven influenza seasons in the US, with a 20.5-fold mean increase (95% CI, 16.3-27.7),” the authors write.
However,, an infectious disease physician and assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, said in an interview that the actual number of deaths doesn’t tell the complete flu story either. That count would miss people who later died from secondary complications associated with influenza, she said.
“There’s just no way to reliably count influenza deaths,” she said. “I think if we required it as a reported illness, that would be the ideal situation, but there’s so much flu every year that that probably would not be practical.”
She said she agrees that rates of influenza deaths and rates of COVID-19 deaths cannot be fairly compared.
What the authors don’t touch on, she said, is that flu season lasts 4 to 6 months a year, and just 3 months into the coronavirus pandemic, US deaths due to COVID-19 are already higher than those for seasonal influenza.
“Even if we look at it in the way that people who think we can compare flu and coronavirus do, it’s still not going to work out in their favor from a numbers standpoint,” she said.
The article clarifies the differences for “people who don’t live in the flu world,” she said.
“It is not accurate to compare the two for the reasons the authors described and also because they are very different diseases,” she added.
Dr. Faust said in an interview that real-life experiences add external validity to their analysis.
Differences in the way deaths are calculated does not reflect frontline clinical conditions during the COVID-19 crisis, with hospitals stretched past their limits, ventilator shortages, and bodies stacking up in some overwhelmed facilities, the authors say.
Dr. Temte said the external validation of the numbers also rings true in light of his own experience.
He said that, in the past 2 months, he has known two people who have had family members who died of COVID-19.
Conversely, “I would have to search long and hard to come up with people I have known or have been one degree of separation from” who have died from influenza, Dr. Temte said.
The authors, Dr. Temte, and Dr. Chida report no relevant financial relationships.
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