Tuesday morning, the president took a quick break from battling the novel coronavirus (personally—not systemically) to trot out a favorite point of comparison:
The flu—we live with it, so we should be able to live with COVID-19 too, Trump says.
Trump is arguing with a statistic that he basically made up (the tweet now bears a warning from Twitter that it’s “spreading misleading and potentially harmful information” about COVID-19). In the 2019–20 flu season, there were an estimated 22,000 deaths due to flu in the U.S. It was a relatively low-death year, potentially in part because of COVID-19 lockdowns, which caught the end of flu season here. The 2017–18 season saw 61,000 flu deaths. That’s the deadliest flu season since 1967–68, when there was A FLU PANDEMIC. Then, yes, around 100,000 Americans died from the flu.
What Trump is doing is doubling the highest recent seasonal death toll of the flu as a tactic to try to make the 210,029 Americans and counting who have died from the coronavirus so far feel like a smaller statistic than it is. Not that Trump mentions the number of dead Americans in his tweet, because this death toll is so large that, even with his made-up statistic, it would puncture his argument that the flu is more deadly. The fact is: The death toll due to COVID-19 in the United States, over seven months, is already four times that of a bad flu year in the same time span. Also, the year that 61,000 people died from the flu, there were an estimated 45 million symptomatic cases of the flu. There have been a “mere” 7.5 million cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., making it significantly more lethal than the flu, not, as Trump suggests, less. Also important: There have been that many cases and COVID-19 deaths with the significant measures many Americans have taken, including shutdowns, masks, and social distancing. COVID-19 would be much worse if we were doing as Trump suggests and simply living alongside coronavirus.
The real thing we should be taking from all of this? COVID-19 is a big, deadly, deal, and other viruses can be, too. While Trump is bending the facts on just how many people are killed by the flu, it’s true that the flu kills a staggering number of Americans every year—tens of thousands. Despite this, only about half of adults get a flu shot. More broadly, many Americans do not have adequate access to affordable health care or sick leave to handle the fallout of an illness and to help avoid spreading it to others.
Back in January, when the risk of catching the coronavirus in the United States appeared to be low, public health experts kept taking the opportunity to channel virus fears toward protecting against the flu. For a short sliver of time, this made sense—the flu was a bigger threat in the United States. Now, from the perspective of October 2020, COVID-19 is very clearly the bigger deal. But it is also not an either/or situation, as recent flu data makes clear. Fighting one virus helps fight the other virus. All the measures against COVID-19 help protect against the flu, too. In the Northern Hemisphere, flu season was cut short in March. The Southern Hemisphere, which should have just gone through its flu season, basically didn’t have one.
That doesn’t mean we’re in the clear from the flu. “We could have a very different experience,’” cautions Edward Belongia, a flu vaccine researcher at the Marshfield Clinic. “We have not been very successful at controlling COVID-19.” Also, the very COVID-19 control measures that Trump is trying to brush away by pointing to flu deaths could save people from dying of the flu. Luckily, there’s one clear thing you can do to help save lives, keep hospital beds free, and perhaps save yourself the stress of coming down with COVID-19-like symptoms: go get your flu shot.