A new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that patients hospitalized with the Wuhan coronavirus disease (COVID-19) are five times more likely to die than those with influenza.
In addition to a higher mortality rate, the study also found that COVID-19 patients are at higher risk for 17 additional health complications than flu patients. These complications include pneumonia, blood clots and respiratory failure.
COVID-19 worse than flu for hospitalized patients
People have been comparing COVID-19 with the flu ever since it was first reported back in early January. Opinions have been mixed, however; while some were quick to acknowledge that the new disease was deadlier than the flu, others claimed the former was far less lethal than the latter.
Now, evidence shows COVID-19 is more likely to cause hospital deaths than the flu.
In a new study published Oct. 20 in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, researchers compared COVID-19 and influenza complications using data from Veterans Health Administration hospitals from all over the United States.
This data covered nearly 4,000 COVID-19 patients hospitalized between March 1 and May 31, and over 5,400 flu patients hospitalized with the flu from Oct. 1 2018 through Feb 1, 2020. Both groups consisted mostly of older patients, with the average age of COVID-19 patients being 70 and that of the flu patients, 69.
The researchers found that only four percent of flu patients died in the hospital, while the percentage of COVID-19 patients who died while hospitalized was more than five times of that (21 percent). Compared with flu patients, COVID-19 patients also have more than double the risk of being admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) and are likely to stay there three times as long.
More importantly, the study found that there was a higher chance of getting hospitalized for COVID-19, with up to 20 percent of those with the disease requiring hospitalization compared to just one percent of people with the flu.
Once hospitalized, patients with COVID-19 also have a higher risk of developing various complications than flu patients. For example, the study found that they were 19 times more likely to develop acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a severe lung condition that causes low blood oxygen levels. In addition, COVID-19 patients are twice as likely as flu patients to develop myocarditis, deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolism and intracranial hemorrhage.
Meanwhile, minority groups, which include Black and Hispanic patients, have a higher risk of developing these complications than non-Hispanic White patients. The researchers said this held true even after they adjusted for age and existing medical conditions.
This finding adds to the growing body of evidence suggesting minority groups are hit harder by COVID-19. According to the report, social, environmental, economic and structural inequities are major contributors to this.
Making direct comparison of overall mortality rates is difficult
While the CDC study shows that COVID-19 is much worse than the flu, it has a limitation: The report only looked at hospitalized patients. As a result, it can’t directly compare overall mortality rates between the two diseases. Doing so would require further study; however, this may be difficult as reports on coronavirus deaths may be inaccurate.
While experts have official tallies from hospitals and health departments, others point to the increase in excess deaths compared to last year as an indication that there may be more COVID-19 deaths than previously thought. (Related: “Excess deaths” hint at a much higher coronavirus death toll than official numbers admit.)
Around the world, health authorities, including the CDC, have acknowledged that many of these “excess deaths” may be due to the coronavirus. But because of how these deaths were reported, it may be hard to conclusively pin them on the disease.
Another thing that complicates matters is the fact that some reports on the number of COVID-19 deaths were inflated. In August, the CDC admitted that some hospitals have been reporting unrelated deaths as due to COVID-19 in order to take advantage of government payouts.
Because of these factors, it may take a while before researchers are able to get all COVID-19-related numbers right.
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