Infectious disease expert compares novel coronavirus and seasonal flu


OMAHA, Neb. (KETV) – As the world scrambles to slow down COVID-19, doctors are still learning about the new coronavirus.

“There continues to be a lot that’s evolving,” said Dr. Mark Rupp, an infectious disease expert with the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

When it comes to comparing COVID-19 to influenza, Rupp said there are some similarities. He noted both are respiratory viruses that are spread through respiratory droplets. Rupp said both viruses prey upon the older population or those who are immune-compromised. Though Rupp said there are also important differences to be aware of.

“So with influenza, we all have some experience with it, either from getting vaccinated or having the natural infection,” Rupp said. “And so many of us are at least partially immune to influenza. With COVID-19, nobody’s immune. Nobody has seen this virus before.”

Rupp said because there is no existing immunity and no vaccine, the virus spreads very easily.

On top of that, he said COVID-19 appears to be a more severe illness than seasonal flu.

“It has a higher predilection for getting down into the lower respiratory tract and causing pneumonia at a higher frequency than what we see with influenza,” Rupp said.

Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services started tracking the 2019-2020 flu season on 9/29/19. Since then, the state reports 44 flu related deaths.

In the last several months of tracking COVID-19, state health officials confirm 98 deaths from the new coronavirus.

Nebraska DHHS also provided this additional data on seasonal flu.

  • 2018-2019 – 79 deaths
  • 2017-2018 – 90 deaths
  • 2016-2017 – 60 deaths
  • 2015-2016 – 17 deaths
  • 2014-2015 – 84 deaths

Rupp said while seasonal flu is not tracked as closely as COVID-19 is, the numbers still have meaning.

“Again, COVID-19 is more severe,” Rupp said. “Probably tenfold higher mortality rate than what we’ve been seeing with seasonal influenza.”

Rupp said we need to be prepared for the possibility of new illnesses like COVID-19.

“This is in some ways kind of a warning bell, if you will, for what we can expect over time,” Rupp said. “We’re going to continue to see new and emerging infectious diseases.”

With all that in mind, Rupp said continuing to take steps to slow the spread of COVID-19 is key.

“In the last part of April our rates have started to tick-up. We’ve kind of plateaued a little bit, but if we’re not careful, there’s no reason why our community can’t look like New York City did,” Rupp said.

Rupp said current estimates of the COVID-19 death rate are inflated because of people who are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms and have gone undiagnosed. He said those mortality rates are being reported anywhere from 2-5 percent. However, Rupp said, in the end, he does anticipate the actual mortality rate of COVID-19 will be 10 times higher than that of the seasonal flu.

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