A new report fresh from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlights the stark difference between covid-19 and the seasonal flu. For hospitalized patients, the report found, the risk of serious complications like pneumonia and shock was significantly higher from covid-19 than from the flu. People hospitalized with covid-19 were over five times more likely to die than hospitalized flu patients.
The analysis, published Tuesday as an early release in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, looked at medical records from hospitalized patients who had gotten their medical care covered through the Veterans Health Administration, the single largest integrated healthcare system in the U.S. They looked at the outcomes of around 5,500 people diagnosed with influenza between October 2018 and February 2020 and compared them to nearly 4,000 people diagnosed with covid-19 between March and May 2020.
Compared to flu patients, those with covid-19 were at increased risk for 17 respiratory and nonrespiratory complications, the researchers found. In particular, covid-19 patients were 19 times more likely to develop acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening condition that fills the lungs with fluid. Heart inflammation, pneumonia, liver failure, shock, bloodstream infections, and bleeding inside the brain were among the other complications more likely for covid-19. Even the typical hospital stay was lengthier for covid-19 patients, taking nearly three times as long on average (8.6 days vs 3 days).
Of the covid-19 patients in the study, 21% died, compared to 3.8% of flu patients—a more than fivefold gap between the two. The mortality rate from covid-19 was similar across racial and ethnic groups, but certain complications were more common among Black and Hispanic patients, such as kidney problems and sepsis. These disparities provide “further evidence that racial and ethnic minority groups are disproportionately affected by covid-19,” the authors wrote.
The findings are not shocking, given the deaths caused by the pandemic in the U.S. so far, now at over 220,000 officially reported. That still-growing and likely undercounted number dwarfs the average 30,000 to 60,000 deaths estimated from a typical flu season, and it has eclipsed the U.S. death toll of the previous three pandemics seen in the past 100 years, all of which were caused by a flu virus. (You have to look back to the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed an estimated 675,000 Americans, to find one deadlier). But in the face of persistent misinformation, even from the White House, that covid-19 is little more than a bad flu, this study is a sobering reminder of just how untrue that is.
There have been some positive developments since May, when the analysis in this study ended. Hospitals and doctors have become better at managing patients’ care and avoiding intensive interventions like invasive ventilation, for instance, while steroids have become a standard lifesaving treatment for the most severe covid-19 cases. These improvements are modest, but are likely reducing the odds of any one person in the hospital developing serious complications or dying from covid-19 now compared to early on.
As encouraging as that is, the U.S. is currently in the midst of its third peak of the pandemic, with daily new cases and hospitalizations once again on the rise. As long as the virus spreads unimpeded, lots of people will get sick enough to need a hospital. And unfortunately, far too many will continue to suffer serious illness and die.