COVID-19 and flu cases both rising, despite claims online
CLAIM: In a normal year, there is a lot of flu but no COVID-19, while during the pandemic, there has been a lot of COVID-19 and no flu.
AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. While flu cases plummeted as COVID-19 cases soared early in the pandemic, coronavirus and flu cases are both on the rise globally, according to the World Health Organization. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports thousands of hospitalizations and deaths from the flu and a significant rise in COVID cases and deaths through the fall and early winter. The flu and the coronavirus are distinct viruses, contrary to claims that they are the same.
As the winter cold and flu season takes hold, social media users are misrepresenting the prevalence of flu and COVID cases compared to prior years.
One popular Instagram post features a meme containing two screenshots of actor John Krasinski in his role on the television sitcom “The Office.”
In the first image, he points to a board with text that says: “Normal Year Flu 2.9 million COVID 0. The second image shows Krasinski next to the same board with text that says “Plandemic Flu 0 COVID 2.9 million.”
The term “plandemic” refers to the baseless conspiracy theory that the coronavirus was intentionally developed and set upon the global population.
“I’ve been saying this since day one,” wrote one person commenting on the post. “There’s NO WAY influenza just ‘vanished’ immediately upon the arrival of COVID. That was the first red flag.”
In another popular post, a woman claims in an Instagram reel that the U.S. is dealing with “record high cases of the flu” even though there were no cases of the illness “on the whole planet” last year. The post had been liked more than 16,600 times as of Friday.
But the flu never vanished.
“Whatever point they’re trying to make is silly,” said William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University’s medical school in Nashville, Tennessee. “It doesn’t comport with reality.”
Thomas Russo, chief of the infectious diseases division at the University at Buffalo medical school in New York, agreed, noting that early in the pandemic, flu cases dropped dramatically as countries imposed strict measures to limit transmission of COVID-19.
But as nations lifted lockdowns, mask mandates and social distancing rules last year, flu cases reemerged and COVID cases surged, he said.
Compared with prior flu seasons, last year was a relatively mild wave of the illness, with an estimated 9 million cases, 10,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths, according to the CDC.
“It seemed that COVID was stopping the flu, really in the first year and mostly the second year,” Russo said, referring to 2020 and 2021. “But the flu has come back with a vengeance this year.”
A WHO report released Monday looking at this year’s flu season confirms that cases of influenza and COVID-19 are increasing worldwide.
An agency spokesperson declined to comment on the widely shared meme, but pointed to remarks made by the WHO director-general in late October as flu season was getting underway.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general, said the world is “turning a corner on the COVID-19 pandemic,” but warned it is far from over as he also emphasized the potential for a more widespread flu outbreak.
“So far, we have been lucky,” he said in the address to member states. “But another influenza pandemic is a near certainty. The only question is when.”
In the U.S., health officials have reported the flu season kicked off earlier than usual this year.
The season typically ramps up in December or January but by early November, the CDC estimated there were already roughly 1.6 million flu cases. The agency reported earlier this month that 44 states were experiencing high flu activity and that the illness had resulted in at least 78,000 hospitalizations and 4,500 deaths so far.
New cases of COVID-19, meanwhile, have risen from an average of roughly 39,300 a day on Nov. 28 to about 62,300 as of Dec. 12, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Deaths from the virus also rose over the same two-week period, from an average of 309 a day to nearly 404 daily.
The meme “might have been representative of 2020-2021 and (less so) 2021-2022,” Kate Grusich, a CDC spokesperson wrote in an email Wednesday. “But it is not an accurate representation of current COVID and flu activity levels.”
This winter has also seen a rise in a third respiratory illness: respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, which mainly impacts young children and the elderly, Schaffner noted.
“You’re talking about a tripledemic,” he said. “We have a huge influenza outbreak across the United States, and we still have plenty of COVID, along with RSV.”
This post has been updated to add a second example of how flu and COVID cases are being misrepresented.
This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.