Gas station without pumps

2020 April 25

Worse than flu?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:26
Tags: , ,

When people write about COVID-19, they often compare it to influenza—either to the annual flu season or to the 1918–1920 pandemic of “Spanish flu”.  There is often a underlying motive in what comparison they make—comparing to the annual flu, which is deadly but not scary, is used to push back against shelter-in-place restrictions, while comparison with the 1918–1920 pandemic is used to support increases in the restrictions. Some people have even been conjecturing that all the hand washing and social distancing would reduce normal flu deaths to the point where there would be less mortality than usual.

While we don’t know yet how bad COVID-19 is going to get, we can certainly look at how bad it has gotten so far.  Does it look more like Spanish flu or like seasonal flu?  First, we can look raw numbers.  The latest number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 in the US is 52,356, and going up at about 2,000 deaths per day, while Spanish flu killed about 675,000 in the US [https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-pandemic-h1n1.html] over its two-year course and seasonal flu kills 12,000–61,000 per year in the US [https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/index.html].  So right now, COVID-19 looks worse that the worst flu season in the past 10 years, but perhaps not as bad as Spanish flu. Even if all the precautionary measures completely eliminated flu, COVID-19 is still going to cause more deaths than the any savings we might see.

We should also be aware that the first spike of Spanish flu was not nearly as bad as the second wave, and we are still in the first spike of COVID-19, so there is plenty of time for COVID-19 to get worse.

For recent years, we can also look at death rates per week.  The New Atlantic has done a comparison of COVID-19 with recent flu seasons and with the main causes of death:


COVID-19 causes more deaths per week in the US than any other cause. The 2017–18 flu season used for comparison was the worst in the past decade. Copied from https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/not-like-the-flu-not-like-car-crashes-not-like

On problem with many of the plots of deaths due to various causes is that reporting of deaths is often delayed and the cause of death recorded on the death certificate is often inaccurate. Different places are recording COVID-19 deaths differently, with some underestimating the numbers substantially by only counting deaths in hospitals of patients who had a positive test for SARS-CoV-2 virus. To correct for this sort of error, some statisticians like to look at “excess deaths”—the number of people dying per week compared to the number who normally die in that week of the year. Plotted over a few years, excess mortality plots usually point out particularly bad flu seasons or natural disasters (like hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017).

One site that plots excess mortality (for Europe) is https://www.euromomo.eu/graphs-and-maps/, which has the following graphs:

The recent spike in excess deaths is clear in this plot copied from https://www.euromomo.eu/graphs-and-maps/. The dip at the very end is probably due to delays in getting data, rather than an actual dip in deaths.

Death rate per week tells you how bad things are at the moment, but a short spike of high death rate may not be as bad as much longer one of more moderate death rate, so it is useful to look at the cumulative excess mortality:

Cumulative excess deaths in Europe, copied from https://www.euromomo.eu/graphs-and-maps/. We can see that the cumulative effect of the spike so far is already as bad as a really bad flu season, and the spike is nowhere near over.

The euromomo site allows you to look at individual countries (not all are seeing that excess mortality—just the ones with bad COVID-19 infection rates). They also break the numbers into four different age ranges—the spike is occurring in adult deaths, but not child or teen deaths.

I have not yet found a recent plot of excess mortality in the US—the ones I’ve found all end in early April, before many COVID-19 deaths had occurred.

Leave a Comment »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: