Dr. Jeremy Samuel Faust, an emergency medicine physician and instructor at Harvard Medical School, has published a blog post on Scientific American calling on the Center for Disease Control to change the way it reports flu deaths, suggesting that those figures may be misleading the public about the lethality of the coronavirus. 

Dr. Faust draws attention to the figures many people associate with flu deaths, noting that they are calculated in a different way than coronavirus deaths, and as such, comparing the death rates from the two is like “comparing apples to oranges.”

As Dr. Faust points out, the CDC determines a range of flu deaths by creating an algorithm that accounts for a variety of factors including total reported deaths, estimated cases, hospitalizations, and total presumed unreported deaths, among others. 

In the last six flu seasons, the CDC’s reported number of actual confirmed flu deaths—that is, counting flu deaths the way we are currently counting deaths from the coronavirus—has ranged from 3,448 to 15,620, which far lower than the numbers commonly repeated by public officials and even public health experts.

For example, the preliminary CDC estimate for total flu deaths in the 2017-2018 season, the most deadly flu season in the last several years, has been modeled at about 61,000 deaths. In addition to this figure, the center has also published an estimated death range between 46,404 and 94,987. 

But while the preliminary estimate for flu deaths is 61,000 in the 2017-2018 season, the total number of confirmed flu deaths is 15,620. Between January 13 and January 20, 2018 — the deadliest week of the deadliest flu season in the last several years — there were 1,626 confirmed flu deaths. 

The Washington Post, which has also reported on Dr. Faust’s blog post, notes that the flu season mortality estimate comes from a “model that attempts to adjust for what many epidemiologists believe is a severe undercount” in flu deaths. 

Of the flu death figures, Dr. Faust writes: 

The CDC should immediately change how it reports flu deaths. While in the past it was justifiable to err on the side of substantially overestimating flu deaths, in order to encourage vaccination and good hygiene, at this point the CDC’s reporting about flu deaths is dangerously misleading the public and even public officials about the comparison between these two viruses. If we incorrectly conclude that COVID-19 is ‘just another flu,’ we may retreat from strategies that appear to be working in minimizing the speed of spread of the virus.

The CDC’s provisional coronavirus death count, which is updated as death certificate data becomes available, shows that 12,516 people died from coronavirus between April 4 and April 11. The following week, 10,478 people died from the coronavirus. 

According to the provisional death count, which is an average of 1-2 weeks behind, 38,576 people have died as of May 4. According to The New York Times, 68,672 people in the United States have died from coronavirus. As of April 29, this figure includes 5,600 deaths that public health officials have identified as probable coronavirus cases. 

The news agency notes that “most states and counties only report figures in which a coronavirus infection was confirmed through testing.”

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