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Swine flu vs. coronavirus: COVID-19 death rate is the difference

“The challenge with COVID-19 is we are all eligible to get sick and spread the disease all at the same time.”

NEW ORLEANS — As the government mandates drastic measures to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, the question on many people’s minds is, why didn’t we see a similar response to other recent outbreaks?

President Donald Trump has repeatedly contrasted the COVID-19 coronavirus with the H1N1 swine flu outbreak in 2009.

Last week, Trump said this at a news conference in the Oval Office: “If you go back and look at the swine flu and what happened with the swine flu, you’ll see how many people died and how actually nothing was done for such a long period of time, as people were dying all over the place.” 

WWL-TV used data from the World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to track the increase of H1N1 swine flu in 2009 from the day of the first death – April 28th, 2009 -- compared with the rise of COVID-19 since the first U.S. coronavirus death was reported in Washington on Feb. 29.

The number of confirmed cases increased at very similar rates over those first 16 days.

Through Monday, the CDC had confirmed 4,226 COVID-19 cases in 16 days since the first death.

At the same stage in 2009, the CDC had tallied 3,352 H1N1 cases.

But, contrary to Trump’s claims, the death rate for COVID-19 has far outpaced H1N1 over the same span.

The CDC had confirmed 75 COVID-19 deaths through Monday. By contrast, 16 days after the first swine flu death, there were only three H1N1 deaths reported to the CDC.

The CDC estimates about 12,000 Americans ended up dying from swine flu between April 2009 and April 2010.

The CDC director at that time, Tom Frieden, now says more than a million Americans could die from COVID-19 if the spread isn’t slowed.

Dr. Frank Welch, medical director for emergency preparedness at the Louisiana Department of Health, said H1N1 didn’t go away. Many people don’t realize it’s now part of the seasonal flu and covered by the annual flu vaccine. Welch said COVID-19 is completely new, is hitting on top of the seasonal flu, has no vaccine and clearly warrants the stronger response because nobody is immune.

“The challenge with COVID-19 is we are all eligible to get sick and spread the disease all at the same time,” he said in an interview with WWL-TV Medical Reporter Meg Farris. “It’s not spread out over time.”

Less than two years ago, the seasonal flu was especially deadly. It killed an estimated 61,000 Americans and 1,400 people in Louisiana, but it didn’t overwhelm health care workers and hospitals, as COVID-19 did in Italy and threatens to in the U.S.

“Those people (with seasonal flu) were spread out from November to April or May. Our healthcare system is designed to handle that kind of load,” Welch said.

Not so with COVID-19, Welch warned.

“We need to take these extreme measures to combat the addition of COVID-19 to everything else we have been experiencing,” he said.

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