A social media post falsely states that COVID-19 is only as dangerous as the flu

As COVID-19 has continued to ravage the country and world over the last three years, the need for people to make sense of the unthinkable led to a variety of rationalizations and myths, many of which have been covered in the Amsterdam News. A particularly persistent one is that COVID-19 is the same as the flu. While both diseases have symptomatic overlap (that is, similar or some of the same symptoms), there are important differences. Knowing those differences can ensure individuals afflicted with either COVID-19 or the flu obtain appropriate, timely treatment, and use appropriate prevention measures. 

According to the CDC, “In 2021, COVID-19 was listed as the underlying or contributing cause of 460,513 deaths.” The number of U.S. deaths for the 2019–2020 flu season was approximately 25,000 individuals per the CDC.

The flu is not an inconsequential disease. In an interview, Dr. Andrew Pekosz, a virologist at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, said that “the flu is…an infection that…affects your entire body. Some of the more common things about flu are that you feel achy, you feel very tired…We keep track of hospitalizations for influenza and deaths from influenza because it is such a serious disease…There can be between 15,000 and 40,000 people in a year [who] die from influenza and influenza complications.”  

However, as Pekosz goes on to state in an article titled “No, COVID-19 is Not the Flu,” the differences between the flu and COVID-19 are stark: “COVID-19 survivors report many more long-term effects of the infection than influenza survivors. Lingering symptoms like weakness, shortness of breath, trouble focusing, and, in some cases, kidney and heart problems are much more common after COVID-19 than after influenza.”  

Dr. Cameron Webb, J.D., M.D., a senior policy advisor for COVID-19 Equity on the White House COVID-19 Response Team, said that, “COVID and flu are not the same…We’ve got a vaccinated population, but for folks who aren’t up to date with their vaccination or who haven’t had the benefit of using an oral antiviral treatment for COVID-19, the risk of COVID  is still a cut above what we typically see with the flu, so that’s something for people to keep in mind.”

Certain distinct differences between the two diseases include: COVID-19 and the flu have different causes. COVID-19 is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. According to experts at the Cleveland Clinic, “Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that can cause respiratory illness in humans. They are called ‘corona’ because of crown-like spikes on the surface of the virus.” (SARS stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.) The seasonal flu is caused by the Influenza A and B viruses.

While some of the symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu are similar, certain symptoms are distinctively different, with the loss of taste and smell being a particularly distinctive sign of COVID-19. According to the New York Presbyterian guide “How to tell the difference between COVID-19 and flu,” “The loss of taste and smell is specific to COVID-19 and is not seen in people who have the flu…While it may not manifest in all patients (about 38% to 55% of patients have reported loss of taste and around 40% have reported loss of smell), this specific symptom might come on anywhere from two days after contracting the virus up to 14 days after symptom onset.” Shortness of breath, symptoms lasting weeks or months and “long COVID” are additional symptoms. More differences can be found on the CDC page entitled Similarities and Differences between Flu and COVID-19.

For additional resources about COVID-19, visit www1.nyc.gov/site/coronavirus/index.page or call 311. For information about the flu and flu resources, visit: https://www.nyc.gov/site/doh/health/health-topics/flu-seasonal.page.

COVID-19 testing and vaccination resources can also be accessed on the AmNews COVID-19 page: www.amsterdamnews.com/covid/.

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