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Perspective: Why death rate numbers for coronavirus need some context

The World Health Organization says the death rate for coronavirus is more than three times higher than the flu. Here's some perspective.

HOUSTON — It sounds scary when you hear the World Health Organization say the death rate for the coronavirus is 3.4%, more than three times higher than the flu.

So far this flu season in the United States, there have been 18,000 flu-related deaths.

Does that mean we’ll see more than triple that number – or over 50,000 – deaths from coronavirus? The simple answer is no. 

It’s a little like comparing apples and oranges.

Most people who get the flu see their doctor, so the total number of cases counted by the CDC is relatively accurate.

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But the majority of people who get coronavirus will have mild symptoms and won’t seek treatment. That means they won’t be counted in the official number of CDC cases so that skews the percentage of deaths.

There have also been issues with testing for coronavirus, which impacts the total number of cases reported to the CDC. 

With that in mind, U.S. health officials said they expect a far lower death rate than the World Health Organization’s international estimate.

Assistant U.S. Health Secretary Brett Giroir cited a model that included mild cases and said the U.S. could expect a death rate somewhere between 0.1% and 1%, similar to flu deaths.

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While the flu has been especially tough for children this season, their risk of getting seriously ill from coronavirus is very, very low.

The risk is highest for older people and anyone with high-risk conditions such as heart or lung disease, diabetes or suppressed immune systems, such as from cancer treatments. 

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