Scientific American: Flu Deaths Are 'Substantially' Overestimated to 'Encourage Vaccination'

Chris Menahan
May. 15, 2020

Scientific American ran an interesting column recently claiming the CDC's yearly reported flu deaths are "substantially" overestimated "in order to encourage vaccination."

From The Scientific American:
Comparing COVID-19 Deaths to Flu Deaths Is like Comparing Apples to Oranges
The former are actual numbers; the latter are inflated statistical estimates

By Jeremy Samuel Faust | April 28, 2020

[...] When reports about the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 began circulating earlier this year and questions were being raised about how the illness it causes, COVID-19, compared to the flu, it occurred to me that, in four years of emergency medicine residency and over three and a half years as an attending physician, I had almost never seen anyone die of the flu. I could only remember one tragic pediatric case.

Based on the CDC numbers though, I should have seen many, many more. In 2018, over 46,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses. Over 36,500 died in traffic accidents. Nearly 40,000 died from gun violence. I see those deaths all the time. Was I alone in noticing this discrepancy?

I decided to call colleagues around the country who work in other emergency departments and in intensive care units to ask a simple question: how many patients could they remember dying from the flu? Most of the physicians I surveyed couldn’t remember a single one over their careers. Some said they recalled a few. All of them seemed to be having the same light bulb moment I had already experienced: For too long, we have blindly accepted a statistic that does not match our clinical experience.

The 25,000 to 69,000 numbers that Trump cited do not represent counted flu deaths per year; they are estimates that the CDC produces by multiplying the number of flu death counts reported by various coefficients produced through complicated algorithms. These coefficients are based on assumptions of how many cases, hospitalizations, and deaths they believe went unreported. In the last six flu seasons, the CDC’s reported number of actual confirmed flu deaths—that is, counting flu deaths the way we are currently counting deaths from the coronavirus—has ranged from 3,448 to 15,620, which far lower than the numbers commonly repeated by public officials and even public health experts.

There is some logic behind the CDC’s methods. There are, of course, some flu deaths that are missed, because not everyone who contracts the flu gets a flu test. But there are little data to support the CDC’s assumption that the number of people who die of flu each year is on average six times greater than the number of flu deaths that are actually confirmed. In fact, in the fine print, the CDC’s flu numbers also include pneumonia deaths.

The CDC should immediately change how it reports flu deaths. While in the past it was justifiable to err on the side of substantially overestimating flu deaths, in order to encourage vaccination and good hygiene, at this point the CDC’s reporting about flu deaths is dangerously misleading the public and even public officials about the comparison between these two viruses. If we incorrectly conclude that COVID-19 is “just another flu,” we may retreat from strategies that appear to be working in minimizing the speed of spread of the virus.

The question remains. Can we accurately compare the toll of the flu to the toll of the coronavirus pandemic?

To do this, we have to compare counted deaths to counted deaths, not counted deaths to wildly inflated statistical estimates. If we compare, for instance, the number of people who died in the United States from COVID-19 in the second full week of April to the number of people who died from influenza during the worst week of the past seven flu seasons (as reported to the CDC), we find that the novel coronavirus killed between 9.5 and 44 times more people than seasonal flu. In other words, the coronavirus is not anything like the flu: It is much, much worse.
The problem with this theory is our officials openly say they're also taking a "very liberal" approach to counting coronavirus deaths, so the data we're getting isn't the best it could be.

Here's a pretty interesting chart from the CDC showing what they deem CV deaths alongside deaths from all causes:

They say there's a 1-2 week lag in their death totals, so 4/25 is probably the cut off.

The percent of expected deaths is not multiple times higher than averages of previous years, they're around 20 percent higher in the worst months. The notion this virus could be 44 times more deadly than the flu just seems absurd.

The CDC's chart seems reasonable enough. It seems to me like the death rate is closer to around 6 times that of the flu. It's bad but it's certainly not Armageddon and until we actually see deaths spike back up to new highs it's not unreasonable to assume it will continue to trend down.

Most of the deaths are concentrated in states where Democratic governors ordered nursing homes to take in coronavirus patients, which is undoubtedly the biggest scandal of this entire crisis and probably criminally negligent.

Regardless, I'm not quite sure how telling the public that flu deaths are overestimated to push people to take flu vaccines is going to make people more likely to believe the CV death rate. It seems like it would make most people believe just the opposite.

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