CDC estimates that the burden of illness during the 2019–2020 season was moderate with an estimated 38 million people sick with flu, 18 million visits to a health care provider for flu, 400,000 hospitalizations for flu, and 22,000 flu deaths (Table 1). This percentage is above the epidemic threshold of 6.9% for week 14. Among the 2,100 PIC deaths reported for this week (week 14), 1,382 had COVID-19 listed as an underlying or contributing cause of death on the death certificate, and zero listed influenza, indicating that current PIC mortality is due primarily to COVID-19 and not influenza.
The 2018-2019 flu season may not have been as severe as the one that came before it, but it set a record of its own, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say. It was the longest in a decade, lasting 21 weeks.
Fewer illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths were reported this year than during last year’s notoriously brutal flu season, earning the 2018-2019 season an overall severity rating of “moderate,” according to a new CDC recap. But the length and trajectory of the most recent flu season—which began in November, peaked in mid-February and trailed off in April—was unique, the CDC says.
Most flu seasons start off with lots of infections from influenza A viruses, which can be more severe and less responsive to vaccination than other subtypes, while generally less-severe influenza B viruses often strike later. But this year, the CDC says, two different phases of influenza A activity dominated the season, contributing to its unusual length. H1N1 circulated widely from October to mid-February, then H3N2 picked up from mid-February into the spring, according to the new report.
Even still, high early-season vaccination rates and a relatively effective annual vaccine appeared to help suppress illnesses. In total, the CDC estimates that up to 42.9 million people got sick during the 2018-2019 flu season, 647,000 people were hospitalized and 61,200 died. That’s fairly on par with a typical season, and well below the CDC’s 2017-2018 estimates of 48.8 million illnesses, 959,000 hospitalizations and 79,400 deaths.
Pediatric hospitalizations were similar to last year’s levels, the CDC says, but there were fewer pediatric deaths: 116 children died from the flu this year, compared to 183 last year.
Although the 2018-2019 flu season is over, the CDC is already reminding people to get vaccinated ahead of the 2019-2020 season, since it’s the best way to reduce the risk of getting and transmitting influenza. October, ahead of the bulk of flu season, is the best time to get vaccinated, according to the CDC.
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Influenza (the flu) and COVID-19, the illness caused by the pandemic coronavirus, are both contagious respiratory illnesses, meaning they affect your lungs and breathing, and can be spread to others. Although the symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu can look similar, the two illnesses are caused by different viruses.
Lisa Maragakis, M.D., M.P.H., senior director of infection prevention at Johns Hopkins, explains how the flu and COVID-19 are similar and how they are different.
Similarities: COVID-19 and the Flu
- Both illnesses can cause fever, cough, body aches, and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea (especially in children). Learn more about COVID-19 symptoms.
- Both can result in pneumonia.
- Both flu and COVID-19 can be mild or severe, or even fatal in rare cases.
How It Spreads
- Both the flu and COVID-19 spread in similar ways. Droplets or smaller virus particles from a sick person can transmit the virus to other people nearby. The smallest particles may linger in the air, and another person can inhale them and become infected.
- Or, people can touch a surface with viruses on it, and then transfer the germs to themselves by touching their face.
- People infected with the coronavirus or the flu may not realize they are sick for several days, and during that time can unknowingly spread the disease to others before they even feel sick.
- Neither the flu nor COVID-19 is treatable with antibiotics, which only work on bacterial infections.
- Both are treated by addressing symptoms, such as reducing fever. Severe cases may require hospitalization and very ill patients may need a ventilator — a machine that helps them breathe.
- Antiviral medications may shorten the duration of both illnesses.
Both can be prevented by mask-wearing, frequent and thorough hand washing, coughing into the crook of your elbow, staying home when sick and limiting contact with people who are infected. Physical distancing limits the spread of COVID-19 in communities.
Flu Prevention During Coronavirus Pandemic: Infographic
Fall and winter months bring the flu season. Here is what you need to know to help protect you and your family from the flu and COVID-19.
Differences: COVID-19 and the Flu
COVID-19: Caused by the 2019 coronavirus, also known as SARS-CoV-2.
Flu: Caused by any of several different types and strains of influenza viruses. Different strains circulate each year.
COVID-19: Many people infected with the coronavirus do not feel sick or have any symptoms at all, but they can still transmit the coronavirus to other people. Review the full list of symptoms.
Unlike the flu, COVID-19 can sometimes cause a person to suddenly lose their sense of smell (anosmia) or taste (ageusia).
Flu: Flu does not typically affect a person’s sense of smell or taste.
COVID-19: Antiviral medications and other therapies are being tested to see if they can effectively address symptoms and shorten the duration of the illness. Currently, effective treatments are only available in an intravenous form, so they are not prescribed to patients outside of a hospital setting.
Flu: Oral antiviral medications can address symptoms and sometimes shorten the duration of the illness. Because they are given by mouth, these antiviral therapies can be prescribed for patients who are not hospitalized as well as for those in the hospital.
COVID-19: The first COVID-19 vaccines have been authorized for emergency use and vaccination programs are in progress.
Flu: A vaccine is available and effective in preventing some of the most dangerous types or to reduce the severity or duration of the flu. It is very important to get vaccinated for the flu this year.
Flu and COVID-19: Similarities and Differences
COVID-19: Complications including long-term damage to the lungs, heart, kidneys, brain and other organs is possible after a severe case of COVID-19.
Flu: Influenza complications can include inflammation of the heart (myocarditis), brain (encephalitis) or muscles (myositis, rhabdomyolysis), and multi-organ failure. Secondary bacterial infections sometimes occur following a bout of influenza infection.
COVID-19: The first cases appeared in China in late 2019, and the first confirmed case in the United States appeared in January 2020.
Approximately 143,962,157 cases have been confirmed worldwide. There have been 31,862,987 cases in the U.S. between January 2020 and April 22, 2021.*
Flu: The World Health Organization estimates that 1 billion people worldwide get the flu every year.
In the U.S., for Oct. 1, 2019–Apr. 4, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there were 39 million to 56 million cases of flu. (The CDC does not know the exact number because the flu is not a reportable disease in most parts of the U.S.)
Flu Season and the Coronavirus: How to Prepare
Infectious disease expert Lisa Maragakis offers insights on what to keep in mind as you prepare for the fall and winter flu season.
Coronavirus vs. Flu Deaths
COVID-19: There have been approximately 3,061,478 deaths reported worldwide. In the U.S, 569,404 people have died of COVID-19 between January 2020 and April 22, 2021.*
Flu: The World Health Organization estimates that 290,000 to 650,000 people die of flu-related causes every year worldwide.
The COVID-19 situation is changing rapidly. Since this disease is caused by a new virus, the vast majority of people do not yet have immunity to it, and a vaccine may be many months away. Doctors and scientists are working to estimate the mortality rate of COVID-19, but at present, it is thought to be substantially higher (possibly 10 times or more) than that of most strains of the flu.
*This information comes from the Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases map developed by the Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering.