By Shereen Siewert

As novel coronavirus cases continue to impact our country and our region, some readers have asked about how COVID numbers compare to the flu.

This is a reasonable question. To answer, we looked to the state Department of Health Services, which issues weekly influenza reports. For the week ending Nov. 21, the most recent data available, the number of patients testing positive for influenza since Sept. 1 is 17 with no associated deaths.

Of course, the influenza season has really just begun, but to look at the big picture, data from previous years can be helpful.

Wisconsin data from the Department of Health Services show that during the entire 2019-2020 flu season, there were 36,175 cases of the flu in Wisconsin. Of these, there were 4,425 flu-related hospitalizations and 183 deaths, including three children.

Compare that to COVID and you’ll find a stark disparity. Since March, Wisconsin has recorded 427,000 cases of COVID. There have been 3,773 deaths.

Nationwide, the comparison is similar. During the 2019-2020 flu season, there were 38 million cases of influenza and about 22,000 deaths. So far this year, COVID has infected about 14 million U.S. residents and has been blamed for 276,980 deaths.

Excess deaths

Another question that often comes up is whether or not COVID deaths are really and truly related to COVID or if those people would have died anyway. Medical experts also suggest that the official death tally will be under-counted, rather than over-counted, because some people who die might never have been tested for the disease or died at home without receiving medical care.

To examine this issue, medical researchers look to “excess deaths,” which basically compares the number of deaths in a given period to the number of deaths in the same stretch of time in years prior.

In the most updated count, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are reporting that about 300,000 more people in the U.S. died this year from January to early October compared to the average number of people who died in recent years. About two-thirds of those deaths were counted as COVID-19 deaths, which CDC officials say is a statistic that highlights how incomplete the official U.S. death count could be.

Are hospitals being paid for COVID deaths?

For months, we have seen a frenzy of social media posts suggesting that hospitals have a financial motivation to classify cases or deaths as COVID-related.

“So, hospitals get an extra $13,000 if they diagnose a death as COVID-19,” a widely shared meme on Facebook claimed. “And an additional $39,000 if they use a ventilator!” One post of the meme, shared by hundreds, was captioned: “And then we wonder why the numbers of deaths are embellished…”

One website ran a story headlined, “US Hospitals Getting Paid More to Label Cause of Death as ‘Coronavirus.’” The story called the idea “disturbing” and an associated interview as “bone-chilling.”

Readers have asked us about this several times, and we’ve seen quite a few comments on Facebook that suggest something nefarious is going on with hospitals.

That $13,000 figure roughly correlates with estimated Medicare payments for COVID-19 hospitalizations, based on average Medicare payments for patients with similar diagnoses. Medicare pays hospitals in part using fixed rates at discharge based off a grouping system, called diagnosis-related groups.

The CDC has classified COVID-19 cases with existing groups for respiratory infections and inflammations. A CMS spokesperson said exact payments vary, depending on a patient’s principal diagnosis and severity, as well as treatments and procedures required for proper treatment.

While it is true that the government will pay more to hospitals for COVID-19 cases by paying an additional 20% on top of traditional Medicare rates for COVID-19 patients during the public health emergency, and by reimbursing hospitals for treating the uninsured patients with the disease (at that enhanced Medicare rate), a Kaiser analysis concluded that the additional funding might not even be enough to cover the costs of treatments and supplies.

And, in fact, most hospitals appear to be losing money on COVID care, Modern Healthcare reports.

The provision, by the way, stems from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act.

The idea, then, that government programs are paying hospitals for treating patients who have COVID-19 isn’t on its own suspicious.

Have a question about COVID-19? Email us here and we’ll do our best to find the answer.