Study finds 2 months of COVID-19 had higher death toll than 5 flu seasons at Boston hospital

A hospital in Boston compared data between COVID-19 patients and that of previous flu seasons, and found the novel coronavirus had a far more devastating impact.

New research from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center looked at data from all flu patients the hospital admitted over the past five years, which totaled more than 1,000 people. The same hospital treated 583 COVID-19 patients in March and April.

Researchers identified 119 deaths in two months from COVID-19, compared to 34 deaths in 40 months — or five seasons — from influenza.

“COVID-19 resulted in more hospitalizations, higher morbidity, and higher mortality than influenza at the same hospital,” researchers wrote in the pre-publication paper. 

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Researchers found that COVID-19 patients were “significantly” more likely to require mechanical ventilation (31% vs 8%), and had significantly higher mortality rates (20% vs. 3%) than influenza patients, the paper states. 

The study also found that 25% of COVID-19 patients who needed to be on mechanical ventilation had no major pre-existing conditions, compared to just 4% of flu patients on ventilation.

Beth Israel

Medical workers near the East Campus main entrance of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a Harvard teaching hospital, in Boston on May 14, 2020. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

COVID-19 patients also needed ventilators for longer, a median of two weeks compared to three days, lead author Dr. Michael Donnino told WBUR-FM. Donnino works as an emergency and critical care physician and serves as director of the hospital's Center for Resuscitation Science.

"This illustrates not only the impact on patients and families, but also illustrates how overwhelmed an individual hospital or health care system can become," Donnino told the station.

The flu and COVID-19 are both contagious respiratory illnesses, but are caused by different viruses, the CDC states. While there are multiple FDA-licensed influenza vaccines produced annually, there is not yet a vaccine available to prevent COVID-19.

Since the start of the pandemic, health officials have scrambled to better understand the novel coronavirus’s impact on the body. COVID-19 and the flu can result in similar symptoms, but health experts have reported other unusual ways that the novel coronavirus can manifest itself inside the body — including loss of taste or smell and even blood clots in the veins and arteries of the lungs, heart, legs or brain.

COVID-19 has also been observed to have more superspreading events than the seasonal flu, meaning the virus that causes COVID-19 can more easily spread to a lot of people — and faster, according to the CDC.

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The study comes just before the start of the typical flu season, which can vary but often begins to increase in October and peaks between December and February, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

U.S. health officials have warned of “the worst fall” season due to the combination of both viruses. Many are pushing for Americans to get vaccinated against the flu so hospitals aren’t overwhelmed with a dueling “twindemic.”

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This story was reported from Cincinnati.