“Flu Proves Deadlier than Covid” read the headline stripped across the top of Monday’s edition of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
“As COVID-19 continues to dictate public life and government policy in Hawaii, influenza and pneumonia have quietly killed at least 859 people over the past 12 months, exceeding the coronavirus death toll for the entire pandemic,” the story began.
It was a surprising revelation after more than a year-and-a-half of daily Covid-19 case and death counts, the sudden halt of tourism, restrictions on business and the angst-ridden months of mask-wearing and testing. All that for something less deadly than the annual flu?
There was only one problem: It was dead wrong.
For one, according to the state Department of Health, contrary to the headline, flu was listed as the cause of death in only one case during the 2020-2021 flu season. While others may have died from pneumonia after contracting the flu, that number is dwarfed by the more than 600 whose deaths resulted from Covid during the same period.
And in more than half of those fatal Covid cases, the actual cause of death was pneumonia. In other words, Covid drove up the pneumonia deaths cited by the newspaper as being separate from the pandemic.
“Covid is by far the dominant respiratory pathogen that has been driving pneumonia mortality and all-cause mortality,” health department epidemiologist Josh Quint said.
UPDATE: On Thursday, the Star-Advertiser ran a front-page story correcting the article. But in the three-day interim, the original had been cited on social media as evidence that officials have overreacted to the pandemic, imposing unnecessary restrictions and mandating vaccines for certain workers.
“Flu and Pneumonia deaths exceeded covid deaths in Hawaii over the past year and are accelerating. Vaccine damage to peoples immune systems? Or was covid just the flu this whole time?” one person tweeted.
“Funny how we had 962 deaths from flu/pneumonia in 2018 to 2019 but no one locked down and no one wore masks because it was typical year to year, but now it is being seen as a way to profit and control,” another tweeted, citing figures from the Star-Advertiser story.
On Tuesday, without mentioning the daily newspaper, the health department issued a statement from Sarah Kemble, the state epidemiologist, contradicting the story.
“In Hawaiʻi and around the world, COVID-19 was far deadlier than the flu during the 2020-2021 flu season,” Kemble said in the statement. “There was one confirmed influenza death in Hawaiʻi between Sept. 27, 2020 and Oct. 2, 2021. This is compared to 608 COVID-19 deaths in the same reporting period.”
Health department officials say the story undermined their efforts to provide science-based information and get the public to take Covid seriously. While case numbers have fallen over the past few weeks, the virus still poses a threat, they say.
“People could interpret that to say to themselves, ‘I’ve lived with flu for all these years and I’m fine, so if Covid isn’t even as bad as the flu, what’s the big deal?’” said health department spokesman Brooks Baehr. “We’re worried this could send a message to people they don’t need to wear a mask, they don’t need to avoid large groups, and … most importantly, ‘Why should I get vaccinated?’”
Quint said that even residents who believe that Covid is worse than the flu on the mainland might still hold onto the hope that it’s not as bad here.
“People have the perception that the virology is different in Hawaii,” he said. “I want to emphatically state the virology is the same in Hawaii.”
Although pneumonia is often associated with the flu, it has many causes — bacterial, fungal and other viruses, notably Covid. Each year, Baehr said, deaths from flu and pneumonia spike as the flu season sets in.
But in the past year, flu dropped to almost zero and Covid took over as the main driver of deaths, according to disease surveillance data the state provides to the CDC that included the numbers cited in the newspaper article.
Covid and the flu are viruses, while pneumonia is a disease that can be caused by those viruses. That makes it hard to parse out which virus caused the disease in each case. But health officials said it’s obvious that Covid has been the culprit in far more cases in the past year.
Star-Advertiser editors did not respond to requests for comment. Baehr said that health department officials talked to a reporter from the newspaper Wednesday.
“We’re optimistic that they will set the record straight,” he said. As a reputable firm, he added, “they have a vested interest in correcting the story, not only to protect their good reputation but to protect their readers.”
Kemble, in her written statement, warned that while “influenza deaths have been rare in the past season, the upcoming season is a big unknown. If mitigation measures are loosened as COVID cases come down, it is likely we will see some resurgence of flu and other respiratory diseases.
“DOH strongly recommends that all eligible individuals get vaccinated against both flu and COVID-19. It is safe to receive both vaccinations at the same time. Getting the flu shot will help to ensure that Hawai‘i’s flu rates remain low to protect our hospital capacity and keep our communities healthy.”
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