WASHINGTON — In a comparison disputed by public health experts, President Donald Trump likened the coronavirus to the seasonal flu Tuesday and said Americans can learn to live with Covid-19.
"Flu season is coming up! Many people every year, sometimes over 100,000, and despite the Vaccine, die from the Flu," tweeted Trump, who has Covid-19 and returned to the White House on Monday after three days at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. "Are we going to close down our Country? No, we have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with Covid, in most populations far less lethal!!!"
The number of deaths from the flu Trump cited is misleading, and in recent years it has been far lower.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 22,000 people in the U.S. died from the flu during the last flu season from late 2019 into 2020. For the 2018-19 flu season, the CDC said, about 34,000 people died. And for the 2017-18 flu season, there were 61,000 influenza-related deaths.
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During the 2009-10 H1N1 flu pandemic, about 12,500 people died in the U.S., according to the CDC. There were about 100,000 deaths from the flu during the 1968 pandemic.
This week, the U.S. surpassed 210,000 deaths from Covid-19, and some models have suggested that hundreds of thousands more people could die by the end of the year.
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Doctors and public health experts rejected the president's comparison of the flu and Covid-19.
Dr. Michael Saag, associate dean for global health at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, School of Medicine, said he is "horrified" at the death toll in the current pandemic.
"The notion of just learning to live with it is not an acceptable policy or strategy, in my opinion," said Saag, a researcher and physician who has been treating patients with HIV/AIDS since the 1980s. There was "nothing worse" in his career, he said, than "taking care of a large number of people for whom we had no treatment."
Clinical trials for Covid-19 vaccines continue, and the entire population remains largely at risk because there is no immunity to such a new virus. While influenza viruses change from year to year, "there's still a lot of cross-immunity from prior influenza viruses, as well as the fact that millions of doses of flu vaccine are given every year," said Dr. Priya Sampathkumar, an infectious disease and critical care specialist at the Mayo Clinic.
Later Tuesday morning, Twitter shielded the president's tweet and slapped a warning label on it, saying the post "violated the Twitter Rules about spreading misleading and potentially harmful information related to COVID-19." The company said it would not remove the tweet because "it may be in the public's interest for the Tweet to remain accessible." Separately, Facebook deleted Trump's same comment on its platform.
There are some similarities — but also some key differences — between the flu and Covid-19. They are contagious respiratory illnesses, they can have similar symptoms, and they can spread in similar ways, from person to person through droplets when a person talks, sneezes or coughs.
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The CDC, however, says that, compared to the flu, Covid-19 is more contagious among certain populations and age groups and that it has more "superspreading" events. Young healthy children, meanwhile, are at higher risk of severe illness from the flu than from Covid-19.
While Trump seemed to suggest that Covid-19 can be less deadly than the flu, the CDC says on its website, "While there is still much to learn about COVID-19, at this time, it does seem as if COVID-19 is more deadly than seasonal influenza; however, it is too early to draw any conclusions from the current data."
The CDC says "getting a flu vaccine is more important than ever during 2020-2021 to protect yourself and the people around you from flu, and to help reduce the strain on healthcare systems responding to the COVID-19 pandemic." The CDC says it recommends that people get the flu vaccination by the end of October. Trump did not mention the flu vaccine in his tweet.
In addition, while many states shut down at the height of the pandemic earlier this year, most have reopened, while others are in the process of reopening, are pausing those plans or are reversing their timelines to reopen.