Amid ongoing protests dismissing the seriousness of COVID-19 and the need for masks, numbers obtained by CTV News suggest the disease has claimed more lives in B.C. over the past 10 months than the flu has over the past decade.
According to data from Statistics Canada, flu was the documented cause of death for 874 British Columbians from 2009 to 2019. As of Tuesday, 954 people had died from COVID-19 since the province's first coronavirus fatality on March 9, 2020.
In further contrast to the flu, which is blamed for anywhere from a couple dozen to nearly 200 deaths a year in the province, half of B.C.’s COVID-19 deaths took place in December alone.
B.C.'s first fatality – a resident of the Lynn Valley Care Centre in North Vancouver – was also the first in Canada.
“COVID is a pandemic like we’ve never seen before. This is once in a lifetime event,” said UBC pediatrics professor Dr. Ran Goldman, though he pointed out the flu deaths are likely underreported.
“We’re testing everyone for COVID, especially if they’re sick or have symptoms, especially because of the public health connotation. We don’t test everyone for flu. We kind of know they have flu because of the symptoms, the tendency to have flu in certain populations, but not everyone is tested.”
A comparison of the death rate, even with caveats, was challenging.
CTV News has asked B.C.’s Ministry of Health for the flu data on numerous occasions over the course of several weeks and was directed to a section of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control's website that publishes detailed flu reports that do not contain any information on provincial fatalities.
A final email request Tuesday did not prompt a response, while Statistics Canada pointed to detailed information within hours of a query Tuesday morning.
The province of Alberta has similarly seen more coronavirus deaths than a decade of flu fatalities and an expert at the University of Calgary says it’s important to fact-check COVID deniers and sceptics who suggest the viruses are the same.
“There is essentially no way to confuse an influenza virus, which looks completely different genetically and structurally from coronavirus,” said Craig Jenne, who teaches in the Department of Microbiology Immunology and Infectious Disease at the Cumming School of Medicine.
“It is a very specific series — not just one, but a series of three genes the virus has; this is a genetic finger print and as a result there is no way to confuse COVID with influenza on these tests.”
That being said, prevalence of the flu itself is exceptionally low this year for several reasons, most notably that more people have opted to be vaccinated and the same public health measures that prevent COVID transmission (hand-washing, distancing, and mask-wearing) also reduce the likelihood of contracting a strain of influenza.
And while the symptoms and mitigation measures are similar between the viruses, the lingering health effects of the novel coronavirus are just as noteworthy as its higher death rate.
“We’re seeing COVID mostly causing complications in older individuals, pregnant people and those with chronic illnesses, while the flu can also cause complications, more in the younger age group,” said Goldman. “With COVID, we don’t know yet what are the long-term consequences. But from what we do know, there are definitely respiratory complications that can linger for a very long time.”