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COVID-19 Impact on Georgia Latest Articles

July 29, 2020

How the Flu in Georgia Compares to COVID-19

How the Flu in Georgia Compares to COVID-19

Updated July 29, 2020; 11:00am ET

There are many myths circulating about COVID-19 but one of the most troubling is that the novel coronavirus is “just a cold.” Younger adults, in particular, may have the misconception that this disease is only serious for older people and those with chronic health issues.

In fact, adults of all ages have become seriously ill, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analyzing nearly 2,500 of the first recorded cases in the United States. The report, issued on March 18, found that nearly 40 percent of the patients sick enough to be hospitalized were between 20 and 54 years old. The risk of dying, however, is much higher among older people.

Early on, comparisons between COVID-19 and the flu—or even the common cold—among public figures may also have contributed to some confusion.

Flu season in Georgia begins in early October and can last until May. The CDC estimates that on average, about 8 percent of the U.S. population gets sick from the flu each year. In Georgia, more than 2,500 people were hospitalized with the flu during the 2019-2020 season. By comparison, as of July 27, Georgia has had over 170,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Of these cases, more than 17,000 required hospitalization and more than 3,500 were fatal.

While both the flu and COVID-19 are highly contagious respiratory infections, they are mild for many people. There are some key differences you should understand.

COVID-19 vs. colds vs. flu
The common cold, the flu and COVID-19 are all spread from person to person through direct contact or droplet transmission.

Contact transmission includes direct exposure to someone who is sick. This includes shaking hands, hugging or kissing. It can also occur when people touch a contaminated surface and then touch their mouth, nose or eyes.

Those who are sick can also infect others when contaminated droplets from their coughs or sneezes land in a nearby person’s mouth or nose. Droplets can also travel about 6 feet before settling on a nearby surface where they can persist for hours or, for some viruses, even days.

COVID-19, however, may also spread through the air via airborne spread, or aerosols—particles even smaller than respiratory droplets that may waft and linger in the air.

Aside from medical procedures that are known to emit aerosols, such as intubations, airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—is still under investigation. On July 9, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) updated its guidelines, noting it could be possible in some other indoor settings.

“Outside of medical facilities, some outbreak reports related to indoor crowded spaces have suggested the possibility of aerosol transmission, combined with droplet transmission, for example, during choir practice, in restaurants or in fitness classes,” the revised guidelines state. “In these events, short-range aerosol transmission, particularly in specific indoor locations, such as crowded and inadequately ventilated spaces over a prolonged period of time with infected persons cannot be ruled out.”

More research is needed to determine how much airborne transmission may be contributing to the spread of COVID-19.

COVID-19 is more deadly
One of the most important differences between the flu and COVID-19: Their mortality rates.

Most colds are caused by rhinoviruses. The majority of these infections are mild and people recover on their own without treatment. In fact, by the age of 2, most kids have had anywhere from 8 to 10 colds—more if they go to daycare.

The flu, on the other hand, is caused by different strains of influenza viruses. Symptoms of the infection come on more suddenly and tend to be more severe than a cold. While colds can lead to a sore throat, cough and runny nose, people with the flu may also develop a fever and experience chills, body aches and fatigue.

In most cases, people with the flu will recover within a couple of weeks. But some—particularly older people, babies and very young children and those with underlying health issues—are more likely to develop complications such as pneumonia, inflammation of the heart, brain or muscles, sepsis or organ failure. In extreme cases, the flu can be fatal.

A severe flu season has a death rate of about 0.1 percent, according to a February 2020 editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine written by Anthony S. Fauci, MD, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), H. Clifford Lane, MD, NIAID’s Deputy Director for Clinical Research and Special Projects and Robert R. Redfield, MD, Director of the CDC.

By comparison, the COVID-19 mortality rate appears to be higher. Just how much higher is still a matter of investigation. On March 3, the WHO reported that about 3.4 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases around the world are fatal. That would mean the novel coronavirus is more than 30 times more lethal than the flu, which claims tens of thousands of lives each year in the U.S. alone.

Keep in mind, researchers are still learning about the novel coronavirus. And variables among countries, such as population demographics and the quality of health care, also influence estimates on its mortality rate. For example, in South Korea—where aggressive testing has been taking place—researchers calculate a COVID-19 fatality rate of closer to 0.6 percent.

Moreover, the WHO estimates that more than 80 percent of those with COVID-19 will develop only a mild infection and recover. It’s widely believed that many more mild cases haven’t been detected and aren’t included in official counts.

If the number of mild, unreported cases far exceeds the number of more serious, confirmed cases, the COVID-19 mortality rate could actually be less than 1 percent, the NEJM editorial pointed out. This would be roughly in line with South Korea’s estimates.

More people are vulnerable to COVID-19
Coronaviruses, like COVID-19, usually circulate among animals, particularly camels as well as cats or bats. When they mutate and infect people, most coronaviruses trigger mild to moderate illness. Only rarely do they lead to serious illnesses, as was the case with SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2.

Still, unlike the seasonal flu, COVID-19 is new. People around the world have built up immunity to some strains of influenza. This isn’t the case for the novel coronavirus. No one has immunity, the WHO cautions.

Older people and those with pre-existing medical conditions—such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes and heart disease—are among those at higher risk for potentially deadly complications associated with COVID-19. These complications include pneumonia, acute cardiac injury, irregular heartbeat, shock and acute kidney injury.

Keeping things in perspective
There are some other key facts that shouldn’t be ignored. So far, most people who are infected with COVID-19 get better on their own with supportive care to ease respiratory symptoms.

Roughly 16 percent of COVID-19 cases result in severe illness and complications, including pneumonia and trouble breathing. Fewer still, about 5 percent, will develop very serious issues, including respiratory failure, septic shock and organ failure. That means millions of people around the world have already recovered from the infection—far surpassing the number of confirmed deaths.

Hope on the horizon
The outbreak has disrupted the lives of millions of people in Georgia, across the country and around the world amid lockdown, travel restrictions, the closing of schools, restaurants and other businesses. Unlike the seasonal flu, there are currently no immunizations that protect against COVID-19.

But scientists all over the globe are urgently working to develop a vaccine. There are more than 155 vaccines in development globally, and several antiviral treatments are also being tested.

By comparison, for those who do become sick with the flu, there are four existing antiviral medications that have been effective in reducing the severity and duration of the infection.

Antiviral medications to help manage COVID-19 infection are still in development. In May 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization for the investigational antiviral drug remdesivir for the treatment of severe COVID-19 in adults and children. While research on the drug's safety and effectiveness is limited, remdesivir was shown in a clinical trial to shorten the time to recovery in some patients. 

How to protect yourself
You don’t need to wait for a vaccine or other antiviral treatments to help protect yourself and others from COVID-19. There is a lot you can do to avoid exposure and reduce your risk of infection, including:

  • Washing your hands well and often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds each time
  • Not touching any part of your face, including your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands
  • Avoiding people with suspected or confirmed infections
  • Wearing a cloth face covering in public settings and when you’re around people who do not live with you

If you think you might be sick
Anyone who believes they may be infected with COVID-19 or might have been exposed to the coronavirus should take immediate steps to isolate themselves and avoid spreading their illness to others.

If you develop any warning signs of infection you should call your health care provider (HCP) or the Georgia COVID-19 Hotline at (844) 442-2681 for instructions. Before going to a doctor’s office or emergency room, be sure to call ahead and inform the medical staff that you may have been exposed to COVID-19. Your HCP will work with your local public health department and the CDC to determine where you need to be tested for the coronavirus.

Medically reviewed in March 2020.

Georgia Department of Public Health. “Daily Status Report.” July 27, 2020.
Anthony S. Fauci, MD, H. Clifford Lane, MD, and Robert R. Redfield, MD “Covid-19 — Navigating the Uncharted.” New England Journal of Medicine. Feb 2020.
Whitehouse.gov. “Remarks by President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Members of the Coronavirus Task Force in Press Conference.”
Mayo Clinic. “Common Cold.”
Healthchildren.org. “Rhinovirus Infections.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Flu Symptoms & Complications.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Key Facts About Influenza (Flu).”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Transcript for the CDC Telebriefing Update on COVID-19.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “How to Protect Yourself & Others.”
World Health Organization. “Rolling updates on coronavirus disease (COVID-19).”
Moderna. “Moderna Ships mRNA Vaccine Against Novel Coronavirus (mRNA-1273) for Phase 1 Study.”
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “NIH Clinical Trial of Remdesivir to Treat COVID-19 Begins.”
The Aspen Institute. “7 Things to Know About the Novel Coronavirus, According to the Experts.”