President Donald Trump on Monday again compared the novel coronavirus epidemic to the seasonal flu, a comparison that public health experts and doctors have said for weeks minimizes the danger posed by the coronavirus spreading across the globe.
Comparing the annual deaths from the seasonal flu to the 2019 coronavirus disease that has swept across the globe, Trump urged Americans to “Think about that!”
So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 9, 2020
The comment clashed with Health Secretary Alex Azar, who’s said on Fox News earlier Monday, referring to the virus, that “this is a very serious health problem. Nobody is trying to minimize that.”
For weeks, Trump and some members of his administration have compared coronavirus to the seasonal flu. Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf erroneously claimed during congressional testimony last month that the mortality rate of the two diseases was the same.
Public health officials say conflating the two diseases downplays the severity of the epidemic.
The mortality rate for the seasonal flu is around 0.1%, while the coronavirus mortality rate — while not known for sure due to variabilities in testing from region to region — is at least .6-.7%, based on current estimates South Korea and China (excluding the hardest-hit city of Wuhan), and perhaps much higher.
And even aside from mortality, differences abound: There is a vaccine for the seasonal flu, while there is none for the novel coronavirus. Also, the global spread of the seasonal flu is well-established, while the extent to which coronavirus spreads across the world is still an open question.
“We’ve reached a predictable tipping point where there’s going to be a rapid acceleration in cases here in the United States,” said former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb on CNBC Monday morning.
Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Program, made a similar point at a press conference Thursday.
The spread of the flu, he said, is a global constant for which vaccines and therapies can play a role in minimizing damage. He drew a contrast with coronavirus, which he said may still be possible to control or slow down.
“In that calculation you now have two chances to save lives,” Ryan said. “If you contain and suppress the virus you save lives by making sure that vulnerable people in your society are not exposed. And then if they are exposed, you have more time to get your system ready to save their lives. You get another shot at lifesaving interventions.”