Comparing COVID deaths to flu deaths -- we've heard many politicians doing it -- but is it accurate? A Harvard medical school instructor and ER doctor says no and is also calling on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to change the way it reports flu deaths.
“What’s problematic is that no one ever thought about the fact that the flu would be compared to something like a pandemic outbreak,” said Dr. Jeremy Faust, an emergency-room physician at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, in Boston, and an instructor at Harvard Medical School.
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“Seasonal influenza has just become the benchmark by which we compare things,” Faust said.
And that benchmark just seemed off to be too high for Faust.
Since 2010, the average flu season kills between 12,000-61,000 Americans, according to the CDC.
“That didn’t add up to me,” said Faust, who regularly saw patients dying of other causes, like gunshot wounds and heroin overdoses, but rarely saw patients dying of the flu.
Turns out, the CDC says that 61,000 number is an estimate. If you count flu deaths the way we now count COVID-19 deaths, the actual number of reported flu deaths is only about 3,000-15,000 a year – making the other figure a drastic overcount – which is why Faust says the comparison between the flu and COVID-19 should never be made.
"You need to be very upfront about the way you account for things, because someone down the road is going to use that number in a way you didn’t expect," Faust said. "I don’t think the CDC expected that a pandemic would break out in the year 2020 and that politicians would be up there saying, 'This is going to be the same as the flu.' ”
In San Diego County, the health department reported 108 flu deaths during the 2019-20 flu season. In comparison, as of earlier this week, more than seven times that number, 767 people, have died from COVID-19.
“I’ve seen a couple of pandemics but definitely not like this one, “ said Dr. Francesca Torriani, the program director of infection prevention and clinical epidemiology at UC San Diego Health.
“The philosophy of the CDC is to be prudent,” Torriani said.
Torriani disagrees with Faust and instead supports the current estimation model used by the CDC.
“I think that, actually, that is the safest estimate,” Torriani said.
Torriani recalls a recent flu season with an unusually high death toll among the elderly, saying that many older folks in San Diego died at home, without ever taking a flu test, meaning that that year, the actual death numbers would have been an underreported.
“It’s better to be prudent than just to make a black-and-white statement, because most of the time, black and white doesn’t work,” Torriani said.
While Faust and Torriani don't see eye-to-eye on how the CDC reports flu deaths, they do agree on one thing: Get a flu shot.
NBC 7 reached out to the CDC by phone and e-mail multiple times since last week in an effort to get a response to Faust's criticism of the CDC's flu-death-reporting methodology. We have yet to receive a response.