COVID-19 is still more deadly than the flu, and N.J. health officials expect cases to rise in the coming days and weeks

Last year, the CDC reported 6,461 COVID-related deaths in New Jersey, or about five times the number of people who died from the flu in the Garden State.

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Flu and COVID-19 vaccinations are now available across the U.S., including at this CVS pharmacy in Palatine, Illinois.

Flu and COVID-19 vaccinations are now available across the U.S., including at this CVS pharmacy in Palatine, Illinois. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

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COVID-19 cases have been on the rise for the last three weeks according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Now that Thanksgiving is over, Dr. Ed Lifshitz, medical director of communicable disease service for the New Jersey Health Department, expects the trend to continue.

“The past few years following the Thanksgiving holidays we have seen an increase in cases as people do congregate together,” he said.

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Epidemiologist Dr. Stanley H. Weiss, a professor at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and a professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the Rutgers School of Public Health, said it’s hard to predict exactly how respiratory diseases will increase from year to year.

“There is always, though, an increase as we’re bearing into these winter months, so with some certainty I can tell you yes, we can expect COVID is going to increase,” he said.

Dr. Lifshitz said an increase in COVID-19 cases will result in a higher number of COVID-19-related deaths, and a similar uptick in flu-related deaths is also expected to happen this time of year.

He noted that while the public health emergency phase of the pandemic is over, the total number of COVID-related deaths is still much higher than the number of flu-related deaths, but it’s difficult to get exact figures because COVID-related mortality is tracked much more carefully.

“It is what is known as reportable, meaning every case of COVID that a doctor or a lab discovers has to get reported to public health authorities, and the same is not true for influenza,” he said.

When it comes to determining death caused by the flu, Dr. Lifshitz said that those numbers are estimates based on larger studies.

He said the CDC estimates between 12,000 and 52,000 Americans a year die from flu-related illness, and New Jersey has approximately 3% of the national population. “So just based upon that calculation I would estimate that about 360 to 1,680 people die of the flu every year in New Jersey, and again that’s just a rough estimate.”

He added that last year New Jersey had a fairly normal flu season, which suggests that about a thousand or so New Jerseyans likely died from the flu in 2022.

He said for all of last year the CDC reported 6,461 COVID-related deaths in New Jersey, “so no matter how you look at it we continue to see about five times the number of people dying in New Jersey from COVID as from flu.”

Dr. Weiss said COVID-19 is still potentially deadly but mortality rates have dropped because a very high proportion of the population has been exposed to COVID-19 and been naturally infected, and/or had one or more courses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

He said that leads to improved outcomes and less severe disease.

Dr. Lifshitz agreed, but said COVID-19 continues to be deadly, particularly for the most vulnerable populations, and those over the age of 65.

He said roughly 80% of COVID-19 deaths are now among those 65 and older.

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Dr. Weiss said getting the new COVID-19 vaccine is recommended by the CDC for everyone 6 months and older.

“We believe that is going to be incomplete protection,” he said, “but greatly boost protection for people against what’s currently circulating for COVID-19.”

He pointed out that because the new COVID-19 vaccine is so new, it’s difficult to say how effective it will be but “we are very confident from the studies done by the vaccine manufacturers that it does have significant efficacy.”

Dr. Lifshitz said the updated COVID-19 shot is referred to as the new vaccine, not a booster, because “every year the vaccine is actually different because the virus continues to change.”

“While it’s still a COVID vaccine, what’s known as the antigen, which is the stuff that we’re putting in to get the response, changes, so it’s not the same vaccine as last year.”

He also stressed the importance of covering a cough with your elbow, washing hands frequently and staying away from family and friends if you feel sick.

He said to go online to find where you can get the new COVID-19 vaccine.

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