Why getting COVID still has nothing to do with the flu – even though it’s just as ‘normal’

Health officials say it, friends say it: COVID-19 seems poised to become as common and familiar to us as the flu. But experts point out that there are still limits to this comparison – COVID is still not, and still can be, ordinary flu.

“It’s time to accept that the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is the new normal,” U.S. Food and Drug Administration leaders wrote in an article published Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “It will likely circulate around the world for the foreseeable future, taking its place alongside other common respiratory viruses such as influenza.”

At the start of the pandemic, experts noted, drawing comparisons between COVID-19 and the flu was highly politicized – a way to downplay a new disease that would continue to kill. almost a million people in the United States only. But now, with vaccines and treatments more widely available, it’s more appropriate to compare the two.

“Today, for someone vaccinated and boosted, the risks of a serious outcome are comparable to those of the flu,” said Dr. Bob Wachter, chairman of medicine at UCSF. He noted that Paxlovidthe antiviral pill used to treat COVID-19 further reduces the risk of death.

In the Bay Area, for example, where the vast majority of people are vaccinated, all types of serious consequences of COVID-19, including hospitalizations and deaths, are much lower than they were in winter 2020. to 2021, despite an upsurge in cases.

Po Lin Lui (right), a registered nurse with the Department of Public Health, speaks with Jose Rodriguez (center), of San Francisco, while Lorena Zavala (left), Department of Public Health Administration for the medical group, translated for them before Rodriguez got a flu shot at the Latino Task Force Resource Hub on Thursday, November 5, 2020 in San Francisco, Calif.

Po Lin Lui (right), a registered nurse with the Department of Public Health, speaks with Jose Rodriguez (center), of San Francisco, while Lorena Zavala (left), Department of Public Health Administration for the medical group, translated for them before Rodriguez got a flu shot at the Latino Task Force Resource Hub on Thursday, November 5, 2020 in San Francisco, Calif.

Léa Suzuki / The Chronicle

For many, the experience of having COVID will likely be similar to being sick with the flu – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that the two can be difficult to tell apart on symptoms alone.

But there are still key differences between the two infectious diseases that limit how much we can learn from the annual flu.

Although the manifestation of the disease may be similar in the two, the underlying viruses are still very different, said Dr. Jorge Salinas, assistant professor of infectious diseases at Stanford – and the virus that causes COVID-19 is not is still not very well understood.

He compared viruses interacting with our immune system to a football match: catching the flu is like playing against a team you know well. Although surprises and upheavals can occur, we generally know what to expect.

But getting COVID is something completely different.

“COVID is a very sneaky team. We don’t know much about it, and maybe they’re not playing by the rules of the game,” he said.

Experts also noted that COVID is far more contagious than the flu, which means it puts more people at risk of serious illness and death from infecting many more people.

“There has never been a flu season where you looked around and knew so many people who had it,” added Wachter.

COVID also brings the potential for long term effectsincluding neurological complicationsheart disease and diabetes, something the flu doesn’t have on a large scale, experts said.

“I don’t want to be alarmist, but there are some viral diseases that don’t show up until 10 to 20 years later,” Salinas said. “I am convinced that we do not yet know the extent of the short, medium and long-term manifestations of COVID-19.”

Finally, COVID is still too new and unpredictable to be compared to seasonal flu, which comes and goes during the winter, experts said. While COVID has shown signs of worsening over the winter, like the flu, this is largely the product of behaviors like spending more time indoors.

“I think there is going to be and there is already some seasonality, some variation with the seasons, but I have yet to see that the transmission has come down to very negligible levels in the warmer months. “Salinas said.

Experts have noted that COVID outbreaks continue to occur at all times of the year, and with new, more infectious variants repeatedly appearing, there is no way to predict what will happen next.

“The flare-ups have been too frequent so far to say it will be like flu season,” said Myoung Cha, president of home care and chief strategy officer at Carbon Health. previously said The Chronicle.

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