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While coronavirus grabs headlines, flu cases reach record numbers in New York

A man wears a face mask in New

A man wears a face mask in New York City on Monday. Credit: Getty Images/Jeenah Moon

The new coronavirus is getting all the attention while the seasonal flu is cutting a deadly path across the country.

There have been at least 34 million flu illnesses, 350,000 hospitalizations and 20,000 deaths from flu in the United States so far this season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In New York State, the number of lab-confirmed cases of the flu has topped 140,000, a record-breaking number since the Department of Health started tracking cases more than 20 years ago.

“People tend to underestimate the flu, because while it makes you feel lousy, they don’t think it results in death,” said Dr. Mark Jarrett, chief quality officer for Northwell Health. “But 20,000 deaths … that’s an awful lot of people. It should be taken seriously.”

Since testing for the new coronavirus, known as COVID-19, has increased in recent days, the number of positive cases has steadily risen to 423 in the country and 142 in the state as of Monday afternoon. There have been 19 deaths linked to COVID-19 in the U.S. — none in New York.

Concerns over spread of the virus have led to cancellations of major events such as the South by Southwest festival, sent the stock market reeling and caused people to avoid crowded events in large venues. They have also created a rush on hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies, leaving empty shelves in many stores.

While there is still much to learn about COVID-19, the two viruses have some similarities. Both the flu and COVID-19 cause respiratory disease and are transmitted by contact and droplets. The World Health Organization said influenza has a shorter incubation period and can spread faster than COVID-19.

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On Monday, President Donald Trump, downplaying the impact of COVID-19, compared the death toll and impact of the two viruses on Twitter, using numbers that are at odds with the CDC's coronavirus total.

“So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life and the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of Coronavirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”

Dr. Aaron E. Glatt, chairman of medicine and chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in Oceanside, said it’s important to note that there is a vaccine for the flu as well as antiviral medication to help battle it. Not so for coronavirus.

“The critical thing to remember is these are two totally different illnesses,” Glatt said. “One [the flu] has a vaccine and some treatment options, while the other does not albeit there is a lot of investigation underway.”

During a Monday briefing in Albany, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo pointed to the difference in death tolls in an effort to ease the public's concerns.

“It's not good that 3,800 people passed away,” Cuomo said, referring to the current global death toll of COVID-19. “By the way, 10 times that number will pass away from the flu this year. Now, people don't realize that … So a little perspective.”

Experts said comparing the flu with COVID-19 is tricky, because both pose a real danger to vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and people with underlying health conditions.

The CDC said hospitalization rates for school-aged children and young adults with the flu have been high and the rates among children  4 years of age and younger are the highest on record at this point in the season.

So far there have been 136 influenza-associated deaths in children nationwide, according to the agency.

"In general, COVID has a higher mortality than the flu, but it doesn’t have a higher mortality in children,” Glatt said. “Mortality in both illnesses is often related to underlying medical problems but even healthy people can get serious illness.”

The World Health Organization said the mortality rate for seasonal influenza is around 0.1% while early estimates of the mortality rate for COVID-19 are between 3 and 4%.

The WHO explains that figure is based on reported deaths divided by the reported cases. Experts say the mortality rate would be lower if it factored in the larger pool of infected people. The WHO said that, to date, 80% of COVID-19 infections are mild or asymptomatic.

“The true mortality of COVID-19 will take some time to fully understand,” the WHO said on its website.

It remains unclear how much COVID-19 will spread.

“We really have no idea at this point if the risk from COVID-19 is greater than the risk from the flu,” Jarrett said. “Even if it’s the same, that’s two different diseases affecting the elderly population. It offers you two chances at a bad outcome.”

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