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State epidemiologist says COVID-19 was 'far deadlier than the flu'

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After the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported that the flu has been deadlier than COVID-19 over the past year, state epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble and the state Department of Health say that is not the case.

“In Hawaiʻi and around the world, COVID-19 was far deadlier than the flu during the 2020-2021 flu season," Kemble said in a 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."

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The Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021.

"There was one confirmed influenza death in Hawaiʻi between Sept. 27, 2020 and Oct. 2, 2021."
State epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported Monday that nearly 859 people had died of influenza and pneumonia in the past 12 months. It cited the DOH influenza and respiratory disease surveillance report.

The report combines deaths by pneumonia and influenza — or P&I — as a way to monitor the spread of the flu virus in the community.

It is an aggregate of pneumonia caused by all infectious agents, including flu and COVID-19. The report itself says, "Studies have suggested that P&I is a good indicator of influenza-related deaths and therefore P&I is one method for influenza surveillance."

UPDATE: On Wednesday, the newspaper reported that "hundreds" of the 859 P&I deaths reported in DOH's reported were casualties of COVID.

In the same "Week 37" report from 2020, there were 734 P&I deaths, and in 2019, there were 896 P&I deaths.

“If you actually look at the reporting on flu, there's virtually no flu reported in the last year," said Tim Brown, an epidemiologist and a senior research fellow at the East-West Center. Brown appeared on The Conversation on Monday.

"There were a couple of cases toward the very beginning of the flu year, which is like last September or something, but very little other influenza has been detected," Brown said. "If you actually look at the national CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) site, they point out that in fact, the vast majority of that influenza and pneumonia and they include COVID. They call it PIC — pneumonia, influenza and COVID. They say the vast majority of that is COVID related."

Kemble said that there could be a resurgence in flu and other respiratory diseases as COVID mitigation measures are lifted.

The health department said individuals should get vaccinated for both the flu and COVID-19, and that it is safe to receive both vaccinations at the same time.

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