As we enter into a period in which the United States seems likely to at least see localized outbreaks of the novel Coronavirus, here is some important perspective. The U.S. is already in the midst of a fairly bad flu season. Probably mostly without your even being aware of it, 32 million Americans (roughly a 10th of the population) have gotten the flu. That has resulted in 310,000 hospitalizations. And 18,000 people have died from the flu. Details and charts here at the CDC flu surveillance page.
As is usually the case, those hospitalizations are heavily concentrated in people under the age of 5 and over the age of 65.
These are important numbers to keep in mind when you hear about tens or hundreds or even thousands of COVID-19 infections. This is a pretty bad flu season. But this is still in the ballpark of the baseline that happens every year.
Here’s the last decade of flu hospitalizations. You can see this year to date in the red.
This isn’t meant to be pollyannaish. Even the low bounds of mortality statistics for the novel coronavirus are much higher than the flu. Also extremely important: most of us have some existing resistance to the flu, even if we don’t get a flu shot and tens of millions do get them. There’s some question whether exposure to other less serious coronaviruses (like many common colds you’ve gotten) may provide some very limited differential immunity to this new strain. But basically, all of our bodies will respond to COVID-19 as something totally new.
So rates of infection and mortality are potentially much more serious. Still, what tends to go out the window in moments of fear and panic is basic numeracy. So understanding what happens every year mostly without the great majority of us even paying any attention is important.
Finally, if you’re on Twitter, here’s a list I’ve created of trusted epidemiologists, researchers, public health experts, agencies and journalists who are providing good on-going information about the COVID-19 outbreak.