'COVID-19 is worse than the flu,' expert says. Here are the differences.

President Trump was discharged from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Monday and has since downplayed the health effects of COVID-19 via social media.

On Monday evening, Trump tweeted that he’s feeling “better than I did 20 years ago” and added, “don’t be afraid of COVID.” And on Tuesday morning, he tweeted: “Flu season is coming up! Many people every year, sometimes over 100,000, and despite the Vaccine, die from the Flu. Are we going to close down our Country? No, we have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with Covid, in most populations far less lethal!!!”

President Trump as he leaves Walter Reed medical center after being discharged. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)
President Trump as he leaves Walter Reed medical center after being discharged. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

The message has since been blocked on Facebook as well as hidden on Twitter for violating the platform’s rules “about spreading misleading and harmful information related to COVID-19.”

Trump is hardly the first person to compare COVID-19 to the flu, especially when comparing the restrictions imposed on everyday life due to COVID-19 with the lack of similar restrictions for the flu. But he is the president of the United States, making his message that much more influential.

Here are the major differences between COVID-19 and the flu that are important to know.

COVID-19 vs. the flu: Symptoms

The symptoms of mild cases of COVID-19 and the flu do overlap, which is often why there is some confusion, Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. However, they are different viruses.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists the following as symptoms of the flu:

  • Fever or feeling feverish/chills

  • Cough

  • Sore throat

  • Runny or stuffy nose

  • Muscle or body aches

  • Headaches

  • Fatigue

Some people with the flu may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults, the CDC says.

These are the symptoms the CDC lists as signs of COVID-19:

  • Fever or chills

  • Cough

  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

  • Fatigue

  • Muscle or body aches

  • Headache

  • New loss of taste or smell

  • Sore throat

  • Congestion or runny nose

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Diarrhea

COVID-19 vs. the flu: Infection and mortality rate

While both COVID-19 and the flu are serious illnesses with potentially deadly consequences, COVID-19 is far more deadly than the flu.

“The mortality rate is much higher, there is no population immunity against COVID-19, we don’t have any strong antivirals against COVID-19 like we do for the flu and don’t have a vaccine for COVID-19,” Adalja says.

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life that it’s a “perverse argument that, because our response to influenza has been moderate in the past, we should just moderate our response to COVID-19 and, in effect, just deal with the fallout.”

“That’s a terrible argument,” he says. “COVID-19 is worse than the flu.”

The data also shows a clear difference. To date, nearly 7.5 million people in the U.S. have been infected with COVID-19 this year, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center. By comparison, the CDC estimates that there were between 39 million and 56 million cases of the flu between Oct. 1, 2019, and April 4, 2020.

But there is a big difference in mortality. During the 2019-2020 flu season, up to 62,000 people died of the flu, according to CDC data. Since March of this year, over 210,00 people have died of COVID-19 in the U.S., per data from Johns Hopkins University. “COVID-19 clearly is more transmissible than the flu and is more apt to be fatal,” Schaffner says. “It’s clearly worse.”

“COVID-19 is far more serious than the flu,” Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life. “The flu doesn’t cause long-term symptoms and organ damage like COVID-19 does. COVID-19 can lead to blood clots that can be fatal.”

“COVID-19 is a multi-system disease; the flu traditionally is really in the lungs,” Dr. Rajeev Fernando, an infectious disease physician in Southampton, New York, tells Yahoo Life. “COVID-19 is head-to-toe.”

COVID-19 can also have lingering effects. Watkins says he and other doctors have seen patients “who get better but don't get back to normal for months, and some never fully recover.”

Downplaying COVID-19 as a “flu” is dangerous, experts say

“There is a lot we still don’t know about COVID-19, and it is very irresponsible not to take it seriously,” Watkins says.

Trump’s latest tweet “continues to downplay the severity of the pandemic, is an excuse to not take actions to control it and is part of the general disinformation and lying campaign,” Adalja says.

Watkins says it’s difficult to compare Trump’s COVID-19 experience with what the rest of the country and world can experience. “The average patient with COVID-19 doesn't have access to an army of doctors and the latest experimental therapies, so it is not a valid or reasonable comparison,” he says.

Adalja agrees. “The president — even though everybody was pulling for him to do well — has no standing in talking about COVID-19,” he says. “His experience should not be used to minimize the impact on the more than [210,000] people in this country who have died of the virus. He’s using his successful treatment as a political tool to continue to fail to control the actions that are needed to control the pandemic.”

But, while dismissing COVID-19 as “just” a flu is dangerous, Schaffner says it’s important to not minimize the flu either. “If people do social distancing and wear masks — these two things together can really flatten the influenza curve like a pancake,” he says. “If we can do that, we’ll spare thousands of deaths and hospitalizations while, at the same time, fight COVID-19.”

Overall, Fernando recommends that people take both illnesses seriously. Still, he adds, “COVID-19 is not the flu. It’s not comparable at all.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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