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Bobbie Pendleton prepares to give a flu shot in the morning at a drive-thru flu clinic at Bristol Motor Speedway, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020, in Bristol, Tenn. (David Crigger/Bristol Herald Courier via AP)

Infectious disease experts say the misconception that coronavirus is "just like the flu" is both dangerous and wrong.

Between 2014 and 2018, influenza and pneumonia on average killed 1,632 Tennesseans and 1,466 Georgians each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So far in 2020, at least 13,862 people combined in both states have died due to the coronavirus, according to the COVID tracking project.

"It is a more worrisome virus, and to say [the coronavirus] is just the flu is both wrong and contributes to the problem," said Dr. Mark Anderson, an infectious disease specialist at CHI Memorial Hospital. "It lessens people's concern about it — they're less likely to adopt the proper precautions, and that leads to wild, unchecked spread."

Anderson said that although there are similarities in how the two respiratory diseases present, there are also some distinct differences between the viruses.

For one, medical professionals have much more experience recognizing and treating influenza, Andrson said. And more importantly, they are able to prevent the flu through vaccinations — something that's in the works but not yet available for COVID-19.

"We have vaccinations that in some years are highly effective for influenza, some years not. But almost every year, there's some degree of protection," he said. "We have drugs that work against influenza pretty well, and that can radically alter the clinical course, and those can also be used in certain circumstances for prevention, as well."

Andrew Pekosz, a virologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said in an online article that COVID-19 is more serious because it can cause more severe illness and most of the population has no immunity.

"Many more people are susceptible to COVID-19 because there is little preexisting immunity to the virus that causes it — SARS-CoV-2. Through vaccinations and previous infections, a portion of the population has some immunity to influenza, which helps limit the number of cases we see each year," Pekosz said.

While both are highly contagious and primarily spread from person to person through infected respiratory droplets, influenza infections typically follow a similar course — abrupt onset of muscle aches and fever, with cough developing a day or two later. Symptoms usually last five days to a week, and possibly less for people who got their flu shots.

On the other hand, disease progression for the coronavirus is much more unpredictable, Anderson said.

Although COVID-19 can present like the flu, it can also mimic the common cold, causing sinus congestion, sore throat and a cough that may or may not be associated with a fever, as well as loss of taste and smell. Some people experience gastrointestinal illness, and in rare cases, clotting issues that can lead to stroke or inflammation of the tissue that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.

Pekosz said another factor is that more COVID-19 survivors report long-term effects of the virus than influenza survivors.

"Lingering symptoms like weakness, shortness of breath, trouble focusing and, in some cases, kidney and heart problems are much more common after COVID-19 than after influenza," he said.

Although many COVID-19 patients experience mild or no symptoms, Anderson said that complicates our ability to control the coronavirus.

"A huge thing is the fact that it's transmitted by asymptomatic people, and a small percentage of them transmit it dramatically," Anderson said, adding that in general, people are able to transmit COVID-19 in the two days leading up to showing symptoms. "Once we gained this appreciation of the pre-symptomatic spread, that's when I think people began to get much more concerned about what this virus was going to do."

Knowing what we know now, Anderson said people should have been more concerned about the coronavirus when it first emerged. He thinks Americans may have been too complacent, because the world managed to avoid a pandemic with SARS and MERS — two other coronaviruses that cause severe illness and came before COVID-19.

"I think we were lulled a little bit by the fact that we've had scares before which didn't materialize into a pandemic," he said. "As we often say in medicine, things just look so clear through the retrospective scope."

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.

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