Why getting COVID is still nothing like getting the flu – even if it’s just as ‘normal’

Health officials say it, friends say it: COVID-19 seems on track to become as common and familiar to us as the flu. But experts emphasize that there are still limitations to this equation — COVID is still not an ordinary flu and always can be.

“It’s time to accept that the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is the new normal,” US Food and Drug Administration leaders wrote in an article published Monday in the Journal of the American was published. Medical Association. “It will likely circulate worldwide in the near future, taking its place alongside other common respiratory viruses such as the flu.”

At the start of the pandemic, experts noted that making comparisons between COVID-19 and the flu was highly politicized — a way to minimize a new disease that would kill nearly a million people in the US alone. But now that vaccines and treatments are more widely available, it’s better to compare the two.

“Today, for a vaccinated and boosted person, the probability of a serious outcome is comparable to the flu,” said Dr. Bob Wachter, the chair of medicine at UCSF. He noted that Paxlovid, the antiviral pill used to treat COVID-19, further reduces the risk of death.

For example, in the Bay Area, where the vast majority of people are vaccinated, all types of serious consequences of COVID-19, including both hospitalization and death, are much lower than in the winter of 2020 to 2021, despite an increase in the number of cases. .

Po Lin Lui (right), Department of Health licensed nurse, talks to Jose Rodriguez (center) of San Francisco, while Lorena Zavala (left), support of the Department of Health’s medical department, translates for them before Rodriguez is a flu shot at the Latino Task Force Resource Hub on Thursday, November 5, 2020 in San Francisco, California.

Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle

For many, the experience of having COVID will likely be similar to being sick with the flu — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that the two can be difficult to distinguish based on symptoms alone.

But there are still important differences between the two infectious diseases that limit how much we can learn from the annual flu.

While the disease manifestation may be similar in the two, the underlying viruses are still very different, said Dr. Jorge Salinas, an assistant professor of infectious diseases at Stanford, and the virus that causes COVID-19 is still not well understood.

He compared the viruses that interact with our immune system to a football game: getting the flu is like playing against a team you know well. While surprises and disruptions can occur, we generally know what to expect.

But getting COVID is something completely different.

“COVID is a very sneaky team. We don’t know much about them and they may not be playing by the rules,” he said.

Experts also noted that COVID is much more contagious than the flu, meaning it puts more people at risk for serious illness and death by infecting many more people.

“There has never been a flu season when you look around and know so many people who had it,” Wachter added.

COVID also carries the potential for long-term effects, including neurological complications, heart disease and diabetes, something the flu on a large scale lacks, experts say.

“I don’t want to be an alarmist, but there are certain viral diseases that don’t manifest until 10 to 20 years later,” Salinas said. “I am sure we do not yet know the full extent of the short, medium and long term manifestations of COVID-19.”

Finally, COVID is still too new and unpredictable to compare to the seasonal flu, which comes and goes over the winter, experts say. While COVID has shown signs of getting worse in the winter, like the flu, that’s largely a product of behaviors like spending more time indoors.

“I think there will be and there’s already some seasonality, some variation with seasons, but I haven’t seen the transmission drop to very negligible levels in the warmer months yet,” Salinas said.

Experts noted that COVID spikes continue to happen year-round, and with new, more contagious variants popping up repeatedly, there’s no way to predict what will happen next.

“The spikes have so far been too frequent to say it will be like flu season,” Myoung Cha, president of home health care and chief strategy officer at Carbon Health, previously told The Chronicle.

Leave a Comment