NEW YORK — An estimated 80,000 Americans died of flu and its complications last winter — the disease’s highest death toll in at least four decades.

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Robert Redfield, revealed the total in an interview Tuesday night with The Associated Press.

Flu experts knew it was a very bad season, but at least one found size of the estimate surprising.

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“That’s huge,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University vaccine expert. The tally was nearly twice as much as what health officials previously considered a bad year, he said.

In recent years, flu-related deaths have ranged from about 12,000 to — in the worst year — 56,000, according to the CDC.

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Last fall and winter, the U.S. went through one of the most severe flu seasons in recent memory. It was driven by a kind of flu that tends to put more people in the hospital and cause more deaths, particularly among young children and the elderly.

The season peaked in early February. It was mostly over by the end of March, although some flu continued to circulate.

Making a bad year worse, the flu vaccine didn’t work very well. Experts nevertheless say vaccination is still worth it, because it makes illnesses less severe and save lives.

“I’d like to see more people get vaccinated,” Redfield told the AP at an event in New York. “We lost 80,000 people last year to the flu.”

CDC officials do not have exact counts of how many people die from flu each year. Flu is so common that not all flu cases are reported, and flu is not always listed on death certificates. So the CDC uses statistical models, which are periodically revised, to make estimates.

Fatal complications from the flu can include pneumonia, stroke and heart attack.

CDC officials called the 80,000 figure preliminary, and it may be slightly revised. But they said it is not expected to go down.

It eclipses the estimates for every flu season going back to the winter of 1976-1977. Estimates for many earlier seasons were not readily available.

Last winter was not the worst flu season on record, however. The 1918 flu pandemic, which lasted nearly two years, killed more than 500,000 Americans, historians estimate.

It’s not easy to compare flu seasons through history, partly because the nation’s population is changing. There are more Americans — and more elderly Americans — today than in decades past, noted Dr. Daniel Jernigan, a CDC flu expert.

U.S. health officials on Thursday are scheduled to hold a media event in Washington, D.C., to stress the importance of vaccinations to protect against whatever flu circulates this coming winter.

And how bad is it going to be? So far, the flu that’s been detected is a milder strain, and early signs are that the vaccine is shaping up to be a good match, Jernigan said.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we’re seeing more encouraging signs than we were early last year,” he said.

— Mike Stobbe

  • I think numbers between coronavirus and flu in terms of death rate are a lot closer than reports. For example, the flu death rate is being calculated off of user reported information (everyone that gets the rotovirus, norovirus, food poisoning, cold, etc, thinks they got the flu) and being multiplied 3-5 times for underreporting in just the US (not third world), divided by the actual rate that dies from flu. So I think death rate is actually higher if all the contractions had to be confirmed. With the coronavirus they are calculating off of confirmed contractions divided by deaths. I’m sure there are plenty unconfirmed ones especially in countries where people don’t have easy access to health care or want to pay a doctor.

    • No one reports having the flu unless they go to the hospital. I have had the flu several times in my life and never reported it to anyone.

  • According to an article in Slate magazine, “COVID-19 Isn’t As Deadly As We Think” the cruise liner Diamond Princess became, a laboratory for COVID-19, with subjects of various nationalities, ages and ethnicities.

    There were 3,711 onboard the Diamond Princess
    Confirmed cases of COVID-19 on the ship: 705 (19% of those on the ship)
    Confirmed deaths from COVID-19 on the ship: 6 (or 0.85% of those who contracted the disease).

    Based on the Slate article, one might expect, based on the Diamond Princess‘s experience, that 19% of the US populace experience symptoms severe enough to warrant medical treatment, seek such help, and are confirmed to be infected with COVID-19. (330,000,000 x 0.19 = 62.7 million)

    Of those 62.7 symptomatic US residents, 62,700,000 x .0085 = 532,930 people can be expected to die from COVID-19.

    By way of comparison, the CDC reported that last year, 80,000 people died of influenza and its complications in the US during the 2017-2018 winter season.

    I don’t actually think that analysis reflects the eventual death rate in the US from COVID-19. I don’t think the experience aboard that cruise liner is going to predict what happens in the US very well, but if it does – well, even a case-fatality rate of 0.85 percent will give us a death toll six times as high as the US death rate from influenza in the winter of 2017-2018 – if the disease spreads as fast was it did on the cruise liner.

    Fortunately, the US is 3,000 miles wide, not a cruise liner. We can hope that a smaller proportion of US residents contract COVID-19. That would give less than 62.7 million cases.

    I hope the case-fatality rate of COVID-19 is closer to 0.85 percent than its current 5.6 percent, which it might be. 10 out of 12 COVID-19 deaths now are from the same county in Washington state where COVID-19 spread through a nursing home, where other illnesses made residents unusually vulnerable to a fatal COVID-19 infection.

    • last paragraph ought to begin: “I hope the eventual US case-fatality rate of COVID-19 is closer to 0.85 percent than its current 5.6 percent, which it might be.”

    • I think you are overlooking two important facts. Everyone on the quarantined Diamond Princess got tested, not just people who reported feeling ill. And the average age of passengers on a typical cruise ship is much higher than the general population. So I would guess that the Covid-19 fatality rate will be considerably lower than 0.89% in the general population of medically advanced countries.

    • The fatality rate of the Spanish Influenza in 1918/1919 was 0.5% it still killed 600,000 people. The fatality rate for the normal flu is 0.1-0.5% that kills between 15,000-80,000/year with a vaccine. Without a vaccine if we eventually get to the possible infection rate of between 40-70% of the population the number of fatalities even at the 0.85% will potentially be in the millions.

  • Please let’s get this info out in media land while our economy and hysteria are being effected by the COVID-19

  • 15% of 329,000,000 is about 49,000,000….2.5% of that is about 1.25 million…no 10 million, but that is still a lot if the numbers apply. Only 80,000 died of the flu last year and that was a huge number. No one is discussing the elephant on the globe though…CHINA…this came from a lab, not a fish market…it has destroyed much and many so far…intentional?…probably not, as it has harmed them also, but still careless and dangerous…intentional is still not completely out of the question either as calculated losses are always a factor in war games. Regardless, THEY are accountable and should finance remedy and face the scrutiny of the world for their part. Either way, the more we quarantine, they better…it can be eraticated without a host and lastly, it’s NOT a political issue.

    • John, Have you ever been to China? I have… I have made 32 trips over 20 years. I have been to fish and animal markets… and they are giant petri dishes with dozens of species living virtually together. This is a society where people will and do east just about anything they can kill! I have also seen street people selling odd animals and illegal animal pelts on the streets… even tiger pelts, generally before the police come and arrest them. This new strain does not surprise me at all.

  • If you look at Covid-19 mortality rate you see it is at 2-3%. It hospitalized around 20%, Serious or critical condition about 15%. There are approx 329 million people in the US. So the math this is way worse than the flu. 60,000 die of the flu Your friend Corona virus is looking at 10 million dead. Big difference.

    • Mae,
      Your calculations appear to be predicated on 100% of Americans being exposed to this virus, resulting in 10 million deaths. I seriously doubt 100% of the United States population will be exposed to this virus. Of course we should be concerned about any virus without a vaccine to counter it. However, we shouldn’t panic nor should we accept media hype that over states the threat.

  • According to Wikipedia corona viruses are a group of viruses known for causing the common cold (upper respiratory tract). They have a crown-like (corona) shape. Gastroenteritis (stomach flu) can have a viral or bacterial cause. From MedMD approximately 56,000 US citizens die from flu-like illnesses each year, usually the young children or the elderly.

    • Interesting information; however, there’s no such thing as stomach flu. The word flu comes from the word influenza which is a respiratory illness.

    • If you look at Covid-19 mortality rate you see it is at 2-3%. It hospitalized around 20%, Serious or critical condition about 15%. There are approx 329 million people in the US. So the math this is way worse than the flu. 60,000 die of the flu Your friend Corona virus is looking at 10 million dead. Big difference.

  • Just announced the first Coronavirus death in the US. In 2019 80,000 died from the common flu. I don’t want to minimize the problem but perhaps the panic is a bit extreme.

    • Not a doctor here, but my understanding is that a virus like this cannot live long outside of a host body, and if the medical community is able to contain coronavirus infections, hence keeping it from spreading uncontrollably, it could actually be eradicated, i.e. it would not exist in the wild any longer. So it seems to me the all out response with white suits and quarantines is an appropriate attempt at preventing it from becoming something we have to ‘live with’, killing some number of people each year. But to you point, it should probably not cause panic for each of us regarding our own well being. There are much deadlier problems we live with day in and day out and within our control. The media simply can’t help themselves from hyping up something new in order to latch on viewers attention.

  • Good Lord, Do your homework. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/index.html
    Like any virus, it will cull out the weak, unhealthy, old and young. And 3rd World counties, with crap healthcare services, (yes that is China the minute you get outside the key metro areas), will have the highest death rates as it will also pick off the healthy that can’t get good healthcare.

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