Fact Check: How Do NC's COVID-19 Deaths Compare With Flu Deaths?
There have been lots of comparisons between the severity of the flu and the coronavirus. As coronavirus cases and deaths surge in North Carolina and across the country, state Health Secretary Mandy Cohen had this comparison to make last week: "Sadly, more than 5,000 North Carolinians have lost their lives from this virus since our first death March 12 of this year. To give some perspective, just under 1,500 people died from the flu in the past 10 years. In just 11 months, COVID has killed more than three times that number."
Is that comparison accurate? WRAL's Paul Specht joins us now to assess this claim.
Lisa Worf: Good morning, Paul.
Paul Specht: Good morning.
Worf: OK, let's get into the numbers. How many people in North Carolina have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic hit in March?
Specht: Well, at this point, more than 5,500 people have died from some complication or due specifically to the coronavirus.
Worf: And how does the state health department count that? I mean, since in the beginning there weren't many tests to confirm a COVID-19 case?
Specht: That's right. The Department of Health and Human Services says those deaths include people who died after a positive COVID-19 test, people who died without fully recovering from COVID-19 as diagnosed by a doctor, and people who had no alternative cause of death.
Worf: Now the state also tracks flu deaths. So is it true that just under 1,500 people died from the flu over the past decade?
Specht: It is true. North Carolina has tracked flu deaths over the past decade, and every season they issue a report. If you go back and look at each of these seasonal reports, they all add up to about 1,400 reported flu deaths. There were 186 last season. There were 203 the season before that. And the highest was in 2017-2018 where they counted 391 flu deaths. There are much smaller numbers between 2016 and 2010.
Worf: And again, how does the state know that it is indeed a flu death?
Specht: They're like coronavirus deaths in that they're reported by health providers or hospitals where they've confirmed the flu either by lab test or it's listed as a cause of death by a doctor.
Worf: Now the Centers for Disease Control also keeps track of flu. How do their numbers tally with the state's numbers?
Specht: It can be a little confusing because North Carolina looks at flu deaths in a vacuum, whereas the CDC groups flu deaths and pneumonia deaths together on its web page that tracks flu deaths by state. State officials here in North Carolina told me that they distinguish between the flu and pneumonia because flu can cause a pneumonia, but a pneumonia can't cause the flu.
And so they think it's important to distinguish between those two. However, if you do look at the CDC's website and try to get those flu totals, you'll see something different on the CDC site versus North Carolina's site.
Worf: And how did you rate Secretary Cohen's claim then?
Specht: Well, just to be sure that she was telling the truth, we also reached out to the CDC and asked their interpretation of North Carolina's numbers and to cross-check it with numbers that they had from North Carolina.
And a spokesman for the CDC said Cohen is right. If you look at deaths from flu alone dating back 10 years and then you look at this year's COVID deaths, then she's right. We have had three times more coronavirus deaths in one year than we've had flu deaths in 10 years.
That's why we rated this claim true. Just a straight-up true.
Worf: That's WRAL Paul Specht. Thanks, Paul.
Specht: Thank you.
Worf: And these fact checks are a collaboration between WRAL and PolitiFact. You can hear them Wednesdays on WFAE's Morning Edition.