KT Gallagher: Why COVID-19 is not “just the flu”

By LeAnn R. Ralph

MENOMONIE — Perhaps you have read the comment online or heard someone say it — “What’s the big deal with COVID-19? It’s just the flu.”

KT Gallagher, director of the Dunn County Public Health Department, stressed in her June 26 COVID-19 weekly update on Facebook that there are some real differences between COVID-19 and influenza.

When the COVID-19 pandemic first started, Gallagher said she, too, thought of it as an influenza and was somewhat comforted by the idea that “we know how to handle it.”

As time went on, the real differences between COVID-19 and influenza began to emerge, she said.

For one thing, influenza can be prevented with a vaccine, and you can get a seasonal flu shot every year, if you want one, Gallagher said.

A flu shot can prevent you from getting the flu, or it can decrease the severity of the flu — “that’s huge,” she said.

There is no vaccine for COVID-19 to date.

Influenza also has federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved treatments.

“If you get (the flu) you can take an anti-viral that’s been proven effective against influenza. That’s very different than what we’re seeing with COVID-19,” Gallagher said.

There is no FDA approved anti-viral for COVID-19.

“The numbers are starkly different, and that should give anybody pause,” Gallagher said.

Numbers available from the European Union show a case fatality rate in people 70 years or older of 20 percent, or one in five, and that’s “a crazy impact … that’s not influenza,” she said.

In 2018, there were 35.5 million cases of influenza in the United States and 34,000 deaths, Gallagher said.

Over the past several months, there have been 2.3 million cases of COVID-19 and more than 120,000 deaths, she said.

The case fatality rate for influenza is .01 percent. The case fatality rate for COVID-19 is 5 percent, or 3 percent in Wisconsin, Gallagher said, and “that’s not influenza.”

At a fatality rate of .01 percent, 2.3 million cases of influenza could be expected to cause 2,300 hundred deaths rather than the more than 120,000 deaths caused by COVID-19.

Many people with COVID-19 have mild symptoms or are asymptomatic and exhibit no symptoms, although they can still pass on the virus, and that’s why antibody tests are coming back positive now from early cases, Gallagher noted.

“The stark difference is with the number of deaths we’ve had and the timeframe,” she said.

Flu season is far longer than COVID-19 has been in the United States, and yet, “the numbers are so starkly different. It’s not the same illness. And we can’t treat it the same way,” Gallagher said.

“Being hyper-vigilant to keep yourself and your community safe is important,” she said.

Gallagher acknowledged that all of the safety precautions can be tiring.

“I know people are tired, but we need to keep our germs to ourselves,” she said.

Although the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Dunn County had remained at 29 for several weeks, as of July 2, the number of confirmed cases had increased to 41, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services website.

At the time of the June 26 update, the number of COVID-19 cases in Dunn County was 34.

The cases are distributed throughout the county and involve both asymptomatic and symptomatic people, Gallagher said.

Out of the positive cases in Dunn County, about 60 percent were under the age of 50, and 40 percent were over the age of 50, she said.

The cases are pretty much evenly split between men and women, Gallagher said.

Some of the Dunn County cases have been associated with a cluster of illnesses from several different facilities, some have been related to household contacts and some were related to family coming from out of town, she said.

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