Some of the questions we frequently get about COVID-19 have to do with comparisons with the flu For instance, “aren’t we more worried about flu?” “Isn’t flu really more dangerous?” “Won’t more people get the flu?” “Aren’t there more deaths from the flu?”
To answer these questions, you should know that we, as a team, are always concerned about the flu, and maintain social distance when one of us has flu. We believe in flu vaccines to prevent or lessen the intensity of flu, staying home when sick, and keeping sick children home from school to help stop the spread of flu. This holds true every flu season.
The important point there is “every flu season.” While there are different strains of flu, we expect a flu season every year. We expect infections, and, unfortunately, we know there will be some deaths, dependent both on the underlying health conditions of those who contract the flu, and the particular strain of flu. We prepare for flu season with vaccinations.
Flu is generally well characterized. While it varies from strain to strain, symptoms are fairly recognizable, tests are available, and for those who have flu and test within the first 48 hours of symptoms, there are anti-viral medications available that can help lessen and shorten symptoms. Most people who come down with flu will, thankfully, recover. A very important point, though, is that the vast majority of people who have flu know it, or at least know they are sick. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average incubation period for the flu (or the time between when a person is exposed and when they begin to show symptoms) is two days, with a range of 1-4 days. Healthy adults are generally able to spread flu from one day before symptoms develop until 5-7 days after symptoms develop, with the period of greatest risk for spread during the first 3-4 days of illness.
We also know that flu is spread through droplets, meaning that when someone who is infected sneezes, coughs, or talks, those droplets could be transferred to the nose or mouth of someone who is not yet infected. These droplets generally travel up to six feet, and can land on surfaces and infect people who then touch those droplets and touch their faces. According to the CDC, flu can live on hard surfaces for up to 48 hours.
One of the most important differences is that COVID-19 is caused by a novel coronavirus virus. We had little time to prepare for it. While scientists rush to characterize it, and healthcare teams rush to treat patients, there is much that is not yet known. Information is evolving. We are in, to an extent, uncharted territory, and can only learn from the countries that have seen this infection before us. Here is what we do know, based on preliminary research (as of this writing). Similar to flu, the virus that causes COVID-19 is spread through droplets. It can even have some symptoms in common with flu, but that is where many of the similarities end. First, unlike flu, COVID-19 droplets can live on hard surfaces for 48-72 hours, though the amount of virus that remains over time decreases significantly.
Additionally, unlike flu, initial research suggests that not all people infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 even know they are have been infected. At first glance, that seems like good news—they are not symptomatic, and are not a direct burden on the healthcare system. However, the flip side is frightening – if these people do not also socially isolate, they are likely unknowingly spreading COVID-19 to others who will become symptomatic, some of whom will require hospitalization and may die. So, while those who do not show symptoms do not directly burden the healthcare system, they do contribute to both the spread of disease, and, as such, the burden on the healthcare system.
If there is one clear, urgent, message we can give you, it is that unlike flu, we do not yet have a full set of tools to handle COVID-19. We do not yet have a vaccine to provide at least partial protection in advance of infection. We do not yet have medications proven to work against the virus should we become infected. And finally, we only have limited testing availability and thus cannot yet distinguish all individuals who are contagious from those who are not. Just because you don’t personally know or interact with someone who has symptoms does not mean that you don’t know someone who is infectious. At this point, social distancing and, if infected, self-quarantining are the only ways to slow the spread of the virus.
We, as a team, are not panicked, but we take this situation very seriously. We believe it is critical to be well-informed and follow guidelines, including social distancing, to limit the spread of COVID-19, and protect the health of our families and communities. We hope that one day in the future, COVID-19 will be either a preventable or treatable disease, but for now, the reality is that it is not, and it should be taken very seriously. We have included links in the sidebar for resources we trust, and recommend you visit those, as well, for more information.
For more a more detailed comparison of statistics, please visit our post on COVID vs flu by the numbers.