How does the coronavirus compare to the flu?

What is the Coronavirus?

Concerts, festivals and theater performances were canceled at a frenetic pace. College basketball’s men’s Final Four tournament, scheduled to take place in Atlanta early next month, is scratched. Some metro Atlanta schools are closed “until further notice.”

Many in metro Atlanta are wondering if these measures, taken to try to address a widening coronavirus outbreak, are too extreme. After all, they say, isn’t it just like the flu?

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked experts, including Ted M. Ross, the director of University of Georgia’s Center for Vaccines and Immunology, and Ben Lopman, the professor of epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, to discuss the coronavirus and to explain how it differs from the seasonal flu.

Why are so many events being canceled?

Experts say avoiding large gatherings, practicing social distancing and closing schools are effective ways to flatten the epidemiological curve of the virus. That mean slowing down the rate of infection enough to avoid a surge of sick people in hospitals all at once. It also can help buy time for the development of treatments and vaccines.

Ultimately, they say, suspending life as usual will save lives.

Carrying on as normal would mean “a spike in cases that would overwhelm our hospitals, our clinics, our first responders, all of our systems,” said Ross.

Many infectious disease specialists say containing the new coronavirus is no longer possible. Now, it’s a matter of mitigating the impact.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

But isn’t it really no worse than the flu?

Some have been comparing COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, to the flu. But members of a White House task force and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stress that COVID-19 is not like the seasonal flu. It is worse.

Both are contagious respiratory illnesses with similar symptoms, and they spread in similar ways. But there are major differences. The new coronavirus appears to be more contagious than the flu, and it’s also more deadly, particularly for older people and those with underlying health conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease.

“People are familiar with seasonal flu, so let’s use that as a reference point. This coronavirus is worse than the seasonal flu in basically every respect: It’s more severe, more infectious and, most importantly, it is new,” said Lopman. “That means the entire population is probably susceptible to this, whereas, with flu, many people have acquired immunity either by being infected in the past or by being vaccinated.”

How many people has the COVID-19 sickened so far?

The coronavirus epidemic had sickened nearly 140,000 people worldwide, as of Friday. At least 5,073 people had died, including 1,893 outside of mainland China. In the U.S., there were more than 1,600 cases, according to the CDC.

And, while the total number of COVID-19 cases has not come close to the number of flu cases this season, experts note we are still in the early days of the pandemic and that it could spread quickly.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House coronavirus task force, warned lawmakers this week that, without aggressive efforts, the number of those infected would go way up to the “many, many millions.”

Ross also said he thinks it’s time for everyone – and not just people in high risk groups – to avoid large crowds to reduce spreading the virus. While young, healthy people, including children, may not be at high risk themselves for severe illness, they can spread it to others who may be at a much higher risk.

How deadly is the virus?

The mortality rate for the seasonal flu is 0.1% or 1 in 1,000 people. According to the World Health Organization, the latest estimates for the fatality rate for the coronavirus stands at 3.4%.

Ross said that figure could be an overstatement because mild cases of the disease are less likely to be diagnosed. That increases the pool of people who survive.

He said it will take a while to determine whether the mortality rate is closer to 2% or 3%. Either way, it’s 20 to 30 more times more deadly than the flu, he said. Lopman, meanwhile, said the rate could end being even lower, possibly 2% or under, making it 10 to 20 times more deadly than the flu.

Lopman added the mortality rate varies from one country to another.

Is the coronavirus more contagious?

Though researchers are still trying to determine the average number of people who catch the virus from a single infected person, preliminary studies include the new coronavirus is more contagious than the flu.

There are still a lot of questions about the role people who are asymptomatic may play in spreading the disease.

But there is is growing concern from experts that people who are asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms may be spreading the illness more than previously thought.A growing amount of research and studies is showing that people without symptoms are causing substantial amounts of infection. As many as 25 percent of people infected with the new coronavirus may not show symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Like the flu this virus appears to spread both through large droplets and droplets smaller than five micrometers — termed aerosols — containing the virus that infected people might release while coughing, but also while simply exhaling. Experts say the level of virus in both types of particles is low, so simply walking by an infected person does not appear to put people at risk.

Who’s at higher risk for severe COVID-19 illness?

Experts say those who have the highest risk of becoming severely ill are people who are older than 60, or have a weakened immune system, or chronic illnesses like lung disease, heart disease or diabetes.

Preliminary reports indicate the mortality rate increases dramatically with age, with those between ages of 40 to 49 facing a mortality rate of around 0.4% compared to those over 80 facing a mortality rate close to 15%.

Children infected with the new coronavirus tend to have mild or no symptoms. That’s in contrast to the flu, which is generally more dangerous to children, particularly very young ones.

And not everyone who becomes severely ill fits the high-risk profile. Dr. Li Wenliang, a physician in China who sought to warn his colleagues to the outbreak there and was reprimanded by police, died from the disease at age 34.

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