Many people have compared the flu to the coronavirus, because both can affect the respiratory system and their symptoms overlap.
But the most crucial difference between the flu and the coronavirus is that the latter is far deadlier. While about 0.1% of people who get the flu die, the coronavirus’ global death rate is about 4.7%, based on the current numbers of cases and deaths.
Death rates of both the flu and the coronavirus vary widely between age groups — the two seem to be most fatal in people over 65 years old. Outbreaks among elderly populations in the US have proven especially tragic. Because the coronavirus spreads via droplets when people are in close contact and is deadliest for people over 80, nursing homes can be dangerous breeding grounds.
During the 2018-19 flu season, about 35 million people in the US contracted the flu and about 34,000 died, according to the CDC. In the US, the coronavirus has infected more than 153,000 people since the first case was reported on January 22. But that number likely far undercounts the true scope of patients because it represents only those who have gotten tested, and the US has been slow to expand testing capacity. People with symptoms mild enough to recover at home without seeking medical treatment aren’t counted in the official totals.
The flu and the coronavirus spread in the same way: via viral particles that travel between people in tiny droplets of saliva or mucus. If a sick person sneezes, coughs, or eats within 3 to 5 feet of someone healthy, the particles could land on the healthy person; if the particles enter the person’s eyes, nose, or mouth, the person can become infected.
An average coronavirus patient infects two to 2 1/2 others. That makes COVID-19 more contagious than the seasonal flu.
That’s the reason so many countries are restricting residents’ movements and encouraging social distancing. Three-quarters of the US population has been told to stay at home.