Fact Check: COVID-19 Hospital Surges Are NOT Just Like Flu Season Hospital Surges

Fact Check

  • by: Dana Ford
Fact Check: COVID-19 Hospital Surges Are NOT Just Like Flu Season Hospital Surges Higher Rates

Are COVID-19 hospital surges just like flu season hospital surges? No, that's not true: The COVID-19 burden is significantly higher. At least 758,261 hospitalizations for COVID-19 have occurred so far in the United States, and that figure is a significant undercount because it does not include data from a number of large states, including California. National figures are not available. By comparison, an estimated 808,129 hospitalizations took place during the whole of the 2017-2018 flu season. Additionally, disease severity among patients hospitalized for COVID-19 is much higher than for people with the flu, meaning the burden on the health care system is greater. As of January 3, 2021, COVID-19 hospitalizations were continuing to climb, having just hit an all-time high.

The claim appeared in a Facebook post (archived here) published on December 29, 2020. The post included an introductory message that said: "Any Hospital Surge we are experiencing is nothing out of the Normal for Flu Season." It also included what looked to be a screenshot from a 2018 news story showing a hospital surge tent. Alongside the image, the post read:

Wow! Covid Cases are surging so high Hospitals need to set up SURGE tents!! SHUT THE COUNTRY DOWN! Oh wait this is from Jan 25, 2018 FLU SEASON!

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

Facebook screenshot

(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Wed Dec 30 19:37:42 2020 UTC)

The post is correct insofar as it said that the 2017-2018 flu season stressed the health care system in some regions. News stories from that time reported some hospitals setting up surge tents and mobile emergency rooms.

In total, the CDC estimates that some 808,129 hospitalizations occurred as a result of the 2017-2018 flu season. Compare that to 758,261, COVID-19 hospitalizations that have occurred to date, according to the University of Minnesota's COVID-19 Hospitalization Tracking Project. But that is a significant undercount because it only includes hospitalization data from 38 states. Several large states, such as California, Texas and Pennsylvania, do not report hospitalization and those three alone account for more than 20% of the U.S. population. If hospitalizations in those three states are proportional to their share of U.S. population, it would push COVID hospitalizations over 900,000. Because of that incomplete set of state data, the COVID Tracking Project, a second tracking group, stopped reporting national cumulative hospitalizations.

In other words, the national count is not known, but we know that it's significantly higher than the total reported by 38 states.

Another way of comparing the flu and COVID-19 would be to look at their reported hospitalization rates.

Each week, the CDC publishes a summary of COVID-19 activity in the United States. Through the week ending December 26, 2020, it reported the overall cumulative COVID-19-associated hospitalization rate as 326.7 hospitalizations per 100,000 population.

The CDC also publishes weekly reports on the flu. Through the week ending May 5, 2018, which roughly represents the end of 2017-2018 flu season, it reported the cumulative influenza-associated hospitalization rate as 106.5 per 100,000 population.

Lead Stories reached out to the CDC to comment for this story. We will update, as needed, if we receive a response.

It's worth mentioning at least two other points. First, mortality and disease severity among COVID-19 patients are much higher than among flu patients, meaning the burden on the health care system is greater. An estimated 61,099 people died from the flu during the 2017-2018 season. COVID-19 has so far claimed 352,645 lives in the United States -- and the pandemic is far from over.

David Dowdy, an infectious disease expert at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told Lead Stories that the best way of measuring the burden on the health care system is not by looking at the number of hospital admissions per se, but at the number of bed days, ventilator days and days spent in the intensive care unit (ICU). Unfortunately, only 13 states report cumulative ICU numbers. Here's Dowdy:

Estimates of influenza-related hospitalizations come with a wide range -- and the important thing to realize is that mortality and disease severity among people who are hospitalized for COVID-19 is higher than mortality and disease severity among people who are hospitalized for the flu.

The second point worth mentioning is that hospitalizations from COVID-19 are continuing to climb, hitting an all-time high recently. On January 3, 2021, 125,562 people in the United States were hospitalized, according to the COVID Tracking Project. Of those, 23,243 were in the ICU and 7,939 were on ventilators.

Lead Stories has debunked claims about the flu and COVID-19 before, covering false claims that COVID is just another flu, that flu kills more people than COVID has and that the CDC had declared COVID less fatal than the flu.

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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.

  Dana Ford

Dana Ford is an Atlanta-based reporter and editor. She previously worked as a senior editor at Atlanta Magazine Custom Media and as a writer/ editor for CNN Digital. Ford has more than a decade of news experience, including several years spent working in Latin America.

Read more about or contact Dana Ford

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