Flu and coronavirus: Similar symptoms, different fears

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Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

FILE - In this Friday, Feb. 9, 2018 file photo, a 73-year-old man places a cold compress on his forehead while battling the flu at a hospital in Georgia. Doctors can test for the flu and get results within a day, but coronavirus testing as of March 2020 is still limited in the United States by availability. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Is it the flu, a cold or the new coronavirus? Patients and doctors alike are parsing signs of illness to figure out who needs what tests or care and how worried they should be.

"You have three different major viruses floating around at the same time," causing somewhat similar symptoms — but different levels of concern, said Dr. Gary LeRoy, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

So what's the biggest danger? And why are we responding to them so differently?

FAMILIAR FOE

COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, is a flu-like illness that has killed a small fraction of the number of people that the flu kills every year. Through the first four months of the outbreak, coronavirus has killed about 4,300 people. Flu kills 290,000 to 650,000 every year around the world, according to the World Health Organization.

To some, that comparison seems comforting because flu is such a familiar foe. President Donald Trump regularly brings it up, noting in a tweet how many more Americans die from flu and adding, “Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on ... Think about that!"

But to public health experts, the huge number of flu deaths is exactly why extraordinary steps should be taken to try to prevent the new coronavirus from spreading widely.

The flu's annual return can't be stopped because it's already so embedded in the population. There is still a chance COVID-19 cases can be limited or spread slowed while treatments are developed.