Deputy Chief Health Officer Paul Kelly said “this is particularly important for those in our community who are most vulnerable for the COVID-19 problem as well as flu”.
Thousands of Australians are admitted to hospitals with flu/influenza complications each year, and around a thousand have died annually in the past few years, explained Dr Tony Bartone from the Australian Medical Association (AMA).
“More than a quarter of a million cases of influenza were officially diagnosed last year,” he said.
So far 4,500 cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed in Australia, with people experiencing varied symptoms, though some quite similar to the flu.
But what exactly is the difference between influenza and COVID-19?
How are they the same?
Both COVID-19 and the common flu are viral infections. Both can spread from person to person through droplets — usually from coughing, sneezing or talking.
“Both viruses are very similar to each other in terms of symptoms and transmission,” Sydney-based general practitioner Dr Therese Kanaan told HuffPost Australia.
She explained they have similar symptoms as they both hit your respiratory system and can cause fever, cough, body aches, fatigue and in some severe cases, pneumonia.
Neither is a bacterial infection, so they can’t be treated with anti-bacterial medication like antibiotics. Instead, health-care providers try to lessen symptoms, such as reducing fever.
How are they different?
Coronavirus broadly refers to a type of virus that’s actually super common around the world. Most coronaviruses cause mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses, like the common cold. According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, most people get infected with one or more of these viruses at some point in their lives.
COVID-19, however, is a novel coronavirus. That means a new strain that wasn’t previously seen in humans. The latest outbreak is attributed to the novel 2019 coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China. COVID-19 is its formal name.
The flu, however, is caused by a bunch of different types and strains of influenza viruses. There are two main types of influenza viruses that break out every year — Influenza A and B. The 2009 outbreak of H1N1 was a type of influenza virus.
Coronavirus and influenza virus, while similar in symptoms, are from totally different families of viruses.
Scientists have been studying the flu for years, however, and can work quickly to develop vaccines and treatment in response to mutating strains. We also know that it’s a seasonal thing, and flu outbreaks tend to die down in some months.
But COVID-19 is new and unknown. We’re still not even 100% sure how it’s spread, though community transmission has been on the rise in Australia.
The two viruses also differ in terms of speed of transmission.
“Influenza typically has a shorter incubation period (the time from infection to appearance of symptoms) than COVID-19,” says NSW Health. “This means that influenza can spread faster than COVID-19.”
However speed is one thing, and severity is another.
“While the range of symptoms for the two viruses is similar, the fraction with severe disease appears to be higher for COVID-19,” NSW Health adds on its website.
“While most people have mild symptoms, approximately 15% of people have severe infections and 5% require intensive care in a hospital ICU. The proportions of severe and critical COVID-19 infections are higher than for influenza infections.”
The other key difference is vaccines. Health officials have said any vaccine for COVID-19 could be over a year away. But the flu vaccine has been publicly available and working for years now. Every year it’s refined to battle the most recent flu virus to keep you protected, and it’s usually about 40 to 60 per cent effective.
So if you haven’t, yet, let this be a reminder — get your flu shot! It won’t protect you from COVID-19, but it could keep you from getting influenza and being a drain on health care resources when they are needed elsewhere. Also, wash your hands.
This piece originally appeared on HuffPost Canada and has been updated with new language about the most recent COVID-19 figures.