COVID-19 is considerably more deadly than the flu, featuring a symptomatic death rate over a full percentage point higher than influenza. Moreover, according to researchers from the University of Washington, the U.S. will see a “staggering” death rate in the future if proper precautions aren’t taken.
The current national death rate for COVID-19 is 1.3%. In comparison, the death rate for influenza is 0.1%.
“COVID-19 infection is deadlier than flu — we can put that debate to rest,” says study author Anirban Basu, professor of health economics and Stergachis Family Endowed Director of the CHOICE Institute at the UW School of Pharmacy, in a university release.
The team at UW developed a website that analyzes and explores the infection and fatality rates in U.S. counties among confirmed symptomatic COVID-19 cases. This study included data on 116 counties spread across 33 states.
To be clear, though, Basu and his team are adamant that their website is not a crystal ball; it can’t predict the future. Instead, it uses current COVID-19 death rates to estimate what’s happening right now in various counties (rough number of current infections and symptomatic cases). For example, in the state of Washington, some counties have an estimated death rate of 3.6% (King County) while other counties’ death rates are much lower (.5%).
Circling back to the comparison between COVID-19 and the flu, according to these estimations, if the same number of Americans are infected with COVID-19 by the end of 2020 as documented flu cases in 2018-2019 (35.5 million), close to 500,000 people would die from COVID-19. However, COVID-19 is considerably more contagious that the flu. So, Basu says a conservative estimate is that 20% of the U.S. population will become infected by the end of the year, assuming social distancing and other preventative measures are continued. A 20% infection rate would mean anywhere from 350,000 to 1.2 million American deaths, the study’s authors say.
“This is a staggering number, which can only be brought down with sound public health measures,” Basu adds.
Researchers were initially using publicly reported data to make their calculations, but quickly realized that information was woefully inaccurate and undercounted. So, they opted to observe trends in the ratio of COVID-19 cases and deaths, or the reported “case fatality rates.” This helped them form a much more accurate picture of just how deadly the virus can be for symptomatic patients.
“Our hope is that our study results can help inform local and national policies that will save lives in the future,” Basu comments. “Ultimately, we want this work to advance the health of people around the world.”
Still, the research team warn that their method isn’t the end all be all when it comes to projecting COVID-19 death rates; this is a rapidly changing situation.
“The infection fatality ratio estimate is itself dynamic in nature,” Basu concludes. “The overall estimate can both increase or decrease in the future, depending on the demographics where the infections will be spreading. It is possible, as the infection spreads to more rural counties of the country, the overall infection fatality rate will increase due to the lack of access to necessary health care delivery.”