How the coronavirus outbreak is different from other outbreaks

HOUSTON – You may hear people say the COVID-19 outbreak is just like the seasonal flu. Our experts don’t agree. We are in uncharted territory so it’s hard to know what to expect out of this outbreak. Pandemics are not a new crisis, but health officials say this one is different.

Past pandemics

Past pandemics have helped public health officials know how to stop the spread of deadly viruses. You probably remember the H1N1 flu pandemic in early 2009. That outbreak lasted about a year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 60.8 million cases with 12,469 deaths in the United States. By the time it was over, H1N1 killed less than 1% of the world’s population.

Additionally, the H1N1-related deaths were estimated to have occurred in people younger than 65 years of age. This differs greatly from typical seasonal flu deaths which typically are higher in those who are 65 and older.

More than 100 years ago, the influenza outbreak of 1918 killed an estimated 50 million people. The unusual characteristic of this virus was the high death rate in healthy adults between the ages of 15 and 34.

Generally, the seasonal flu season kills less than 1% of those infected.

Why COVID-19 is different

The new coronavirus appears to be more contagious with a higher fatality rate than the seasonal flu, health officials say. Globally, about 3.4% of COVID-19 cases have died. So, while the numbers of flu cases are higher, the percentage of people that COVID-19 kills is greater.

Dr. Marc Boom, the president and CEO of Houston Methodist Hospital, said the fatality rate for COVID-19 gets higher, the older you are.

“We’re talking very high numbers, much higher numbers than we talk about with the flu,” Boom said.

However, over time these numbers may change and (hopefully) look less severe, Boom said. But that does not mean the measures taken to contain the virus an overreaction.

“By no means is this hype or overreaction,” said Dr. Boom. “This is necessary. It’s all about surge protection for the hospital. It’s all about flattening the curve. If we overwhelm the infrastructure that we have, bad things happen. We saw that in China, we’re seeing that in northern Italy.”

For the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009, there was no immunity at the start of the outbreak, just like with coronavirus. By the end of 2009, there was a vaccine which combined with higher levels of immunity, has provided protection in subsequent flu seasons.