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COVID-19 statistics can’t be compared to influenza due to a lack of flu data
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COVID-19 statistics can’t be compared to influenza due to a lack of flu data

Statistics used by Santa Barbara County to track COVID-19 cases can’t be compared to statistics for influenza — simply because influenza data don’t exist, the county’s public health officer told the Board of Supervisors this week.

Dr. Henning Ansorg delivered a report about comparing novel coronavirus with influenza in response to requests 4th District Supervisor Peter Adam has made during the COVID-19 updates delivered to the board since the pandemic was declared.

Last week, Adam said he wanted to see graphs comparing such statistics as the number of deaths from each disease, the total number of diagnosed cases for each disease and total number of patients who recovered from each disease since Jan. 1 to the present.

But Ansorg said despite the efforts of the epidemiology team to extract the data, it just wasn’t there to extract, and the only graph he produced comparing the two was for deaths.

“The problem with that is that traditionally influenza data are measured and reported in a very different way than the COVID data,” Ansorg said. “COVID is so new that a COVID case is always tested. We always have a test result, and there is not a lot of question about the validity of any case number.

“When we’re talking about influenza, however, the vast majority of diagnoses that are made across the country, across the world, by primary care physicians, emergency rooms, any kind of medical provider, is sort of like, ‘Yeah, this is like the flu,’” he said.

Ansorg said there are 71 diagnosis codes doctors can use for influenza when billing for a patient’s visit.

“All our data that we have for influenza are surveyance data and not really measured tests at all,” he said. “So if someone were to Google how many die from influenza in 2018 or something, you get a horrendous number.”

However, the number is not from lab-confirmed cases of the influenza, just an approximate estimate.

“And this disease is not the infection with one particular virus, the influenza virus, but with a whole slew of different pathogens,” he said. “Therefore, it’s very difficult to compare influenza data with these really hard COVID data that we have right now.”

Ansorg’s graph of deaths in the county showed 11 from COVID-19 in just one month but seven from influenza in three months.

He said the influenza deaths weren’t confirmed by lab tests but came from death certificates, and any mention of a flu-like illness on a death certificate will be counted as a death from flu.

He said he also couldn’t graph the total number of influenza and COVID-19 cases nor the number of people who recovered from the two diseases because the flu is not a “reportable” disease, while COVID-19 is.

“Therefore, if we wanted to compare one reportable disease to another reportable disease, we could have plotted this; but unfortunately, with influenza it’s not possible due to lack of those data,” Ansorg said.

However, Ansorg pointed out the infectiousness of COVID-19 is much higher than that of influenza, explaining one person with the flu will infect 1.2 to 1.4 other people, while one person with COVID-19 will infect 2 to 2.5 other people.

He said the death rate for COVID-19 is much higher, about 5.7% nationwide and about 4% in California, while the death rate for influenza is 0.01% to 0.1%.

Ansorg added that the influenza virus has been around a long time and everyone has at least partial immunity to it, but COVID-19 is new and few people have any immunity.

While there are vaccines and medication for influenza, he said, there are no vaccines or medications for COVID-19.

“I’ve been a clinician for a quarter of a century, for sure, and I’ve yet to see or recall a lot of patients that have actually died from influenza,” he said.

Infographic: San Luis Obispo County Coronavirus Cases

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County Reporter/Associate Editor

Lee Central Coast Newspapers associate editor Mike Hodgson covers Santa Barbara County government and events and issues in Santa Ynez Valley. Follow him on Twitter @MHodgsonSYVNews.

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