Fact Check: Flu Does NOT Kill More Than 100,000 Americans Some Years Nor Is It More Lethal Than COVID-19, As Trump Claims

Fact Check

  • by: Arthur Brice
Fact Check: Flu Does NOT Kill More Than 100,000 Americans Some Years Nor Is It More Lethal Than COVID-19, As Trump Claims Wrong Number

Does the seasonal flu kill more than 100,000 U.S. residents some years and is it more lethal than COVID-19, as President Trump claimed in a tweet? No on both counts: The CDC estimates that over the past decade yearly totals for U.S. flu deaths have ranged from a low of 12,000 people to a high of 61,000. And, although much is still not known about COVID-19, health experts agree it is far more lethal than the flu.

The claim appeared in a tweet (archived here) ] on October 6, 2020. It began:

Flu season is coming up! Many people every year, sometimes over 100,000, and despite the Vaccine, die from the Flu.

This is what the post looked like on Twitter at the time of writing

(Source: Twitter screenshot taken on Tue Oct 6 16:25:34 2020 UTC)

The tweet continued:

Are we going to close down our Country? No, we have learned to live with it, just like we are learning to live with Covid, in most populations far less lethal!!!

Twitter tagged Trump's post as misleading.

This Tweet violated the Twitter Rules about spreading misleading and potentially harmful information related to COVID-19. However, Twitter has determined that it may be in the public's interest for the Tweet to remain accessible.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which tracks estimated flu deaths, says the yearly total in the past decade has not exceeded 61,000 deaths.

CDC estimates that influenza has resulted in between 9 million - 45 million illnesses, between 140,000 - 810,000 hospitalizations and between 12,000 - 61,000 deaths annually since 2010.

According to the CDC, the highest number of estimated deaths (61,000) occurred in the 2017-18 flu season. The lowest number (12,000) occurred in the 2011-12 season.

Facebook also removed the same post from its platform, CNN and other news outlets reported.

Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone confirmed the company removed the post for breaking its rules on Covid-19 misinformation.

Health and science experts believe COVID-19 is far more lethal than seasonal influenza, which strikes yearly, but in different strains.

Doctors and scientists are working to estimate the mortality rate of COVID-19, but at present, it is thought to be substantially higher (possibly 10 times or more) than that of most strains of the flu.

Trump acknowledged that fact in an interview earlier this year.

Trump himself appeared to tell The Washington Post's Bob Woodward in a February interview that the coronavirus was five times more lethal than the flu, saying that Covid-19 is "deadly stuff" and "more deadly than ... even your strenuous flus."

The CDC has a fairly wide-ranging and inclusive criteria for what constitutes a flu-related death.

Seasonal influenza-related deaths are deaths that occur in people for whom influenza infection was likely a contributor to the cause of death, but not necessarily the primary cause of death.

But the agency concedes it does not have an exact tally of how many residents die from the flu each year and labels its totals as "estimates."

There are several reasons for this.

First, states are not required to report individual flu illnesses or deaths among people older than 18 years of age to CDC.

Second, influenza is infrequently listed on death certificates of people who die from flu-related complications.

Third, many flu-related deaths occur one or two weeks after a person's initial infection, either because the person may develop a secondary bacterial co-infection (such as bacterial pneumonia) or because influenza can aggravate an existing chronic illness (such as congestive heart failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

Also, most people who die from flu-related complications are not tested for flu, or they seek medical care later in their illness when influenza can no longer be detected from respiratory samples. Sensitive influenza tests are only likely to detect influenza if performed within a week after onset of illness. In addition, some commonly used tests to diagnose influenza in clinical settings are not highly sensitive and can provide false negative results (i.e. they misdiagnose flu illness as not being flu.) For these reasons, many flu-related deaths may not be recorded on death certificates.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been the deadliest outbreak in more than 100 years:

  • The Spanish Flu in 1918-19 killed 675,000 people in the United States.
  • The Asian Flu in 1957-58 killed 69,800 people in the United States, with the elderly having the highest death rate.
  • The Hong Kong Flu in 1968-69 killed 33,800 people, making it the mildest influenza pandemic in the 20th century.
  • H1N1 in 2009-10 killed between 8,870 and 18,300 people.

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Lead Stories is working with the CoronaVirusFacts/DatosCoronaVirus Alliance, a coalition of more than 100 fact-checkers who are fighting misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more about the alliance here.


  Arthur Brice

Arthur Brice is a fact checker at Lead Stories. He has been a journalist for more than 40 years, nearly 30 of them in newspapers. Brice was a national desk editor and reporter at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for nearly 20 years. Previously, he was political editor at The Tampa Tribune and also worked for three other Florida newspapers. He spent 11 Years as an executive editor and executive producer at CNN. 

Read more about or contact Arthur Brice

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