When reports about the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 began circulating earlier this year and questions were being raised about how the illness it causes, COVID-19, compared to the flu, it occurred to me that, in four years of emergency medicine residency and over three and a half years as an attending physician, I had almost never seen anyone die of the flu. I could only remember one tragic pediatric case.
Based on the CDC numbers though, I should have seen many, many more. In 2018, over 46,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses. Over 36,500 died in traffic accidents. Nearly 40,000 died from gun violence. I see those deaths all the time. Was I alone in noticing this discrepancy?
I decided to call colleagues around the country who work in other emergency departments and in intensive care units to ask a simple question: how many patients could they remember dying from the flu? Most of the physicians I surveyed couldn’t remember a single one over their careers. Some said they recalled a few. All of them seemed to be having the same light bulb moment I had already experienced: For too long, we have blindly accepted a statistic that does not match our clinical experience.
The 25,000 to 69,000 numbers that Trump cited do not represent counted flu deaths per year; they are estimates that the CDC produces by multiplying the number of flu death counts reported by various coefficients produced through complicated algorithms. These coefficients are based on assumptions of how many cases, hospitalizations, and deaths they believe went unreported. In the last six flu seasons, the CDC’s reported number of actual confirmed flu deaths—that is, counting flu deaths the way we are currently counting deaths from the coronavirus—has ranged from 3,448 to 15,620, which far lower than the numbers commonly repeated by public officials and even public health experts.
There is some logic behind the CDC’s methods. There are, of course, some flu deaths that are missed, because not everyone who contracts the flu gets a flu test. But there are little data to support the CDC’s assumption that the number of people who die of flu each year is on average six times greater than the number of flu deaths that are actually confirmed. In fact, in the fine print, the CDC’s flu numbers also include pneumonia deaths.