Using statistics from Worldometer.info to make their case, the researchers noted that the disease caused by the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, caused 15,455 deaths across the United States during the week ending April 21 and 14,478 during a week earlier.
Conversely, during a typical week during the winter season, the flu causes 350 to 1,600 Americans' deaths, based on a review of figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that cover 2015 to 2018.
The stark differences in the impact of the two viruses, however, should alert Americans to the seriousness of COVID-19 and help shape public health response to the ongoing pandemic, experts said.
"Unfortunately, differentiating between 0.1 percent -- the death rate for the flu -- and 1 percent -- the death rate for COVID-19 -- means little to the general public, but when you say that 100,000 people will die from the flu compared to the 1 million people who will die from COVID-19, then people start to take notice," Kevin S. Harrod, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told UPI.
Harrod was not involved in the JAMA Internal Medicine analysis, which was conducted by researchers at Harvard University and Emory University.
As many as 50,000 people in the United States die from the flu annually, according to CDC estimates.
As many as 35 million Americans suffered from the flu this past winter, and fewer than 30,000 of them died, the CDC said.
Only a fraction of all cases of the seasonal virus are confirmed by laboratory analysis, however, which means the counts are estimates.
The agency uses a mathematical model to estimate the number of people sickened by the flu, doctor visits for flu-related reasons, hospitalizations related to the virus, the deaths it causes and the impact of influenza vaccination on these numbers.
To compare, the latest figures from Johns Hopkins University indicate that, through Thursday, nearly 1.4 million Americans have been infected with the new coronavirus, while nearly 86,000 died.
The Johns Hopkins data is based on reporting of confirmed cases of COVID-19 and deaths attributed to the disease from county and state health departments across the country.
Public officials, however, continue to liken the impact of COVID-19 with that of seasonal influenza, authors of the new analysis wrote.
For the week ending April 21, researchers calculated that COVID-19 deaths for the week were 9.5-fold to 44.1-fold higher than the peak week of counted influenza deaths over the past seven winter seasons in the United States.
For the week ending April 11, the researchers found the number of COVID-19 deaths reported to the CDC was 14.4-fold higher than the influenza-related deaths reported during "the apparent peak week" of the 2019-20 flu season -- the week ending Feb. 29.
As the CDC continues to revise its COVID-19 estimates to account for delays in reporting, the researchers said, the ratio of COVID-19 deaths to influenza deaths "is likely to increase."
"This apparent equivalence of deaths from COVID-19 and seasonal influenza does not match frontline clinical conditions, especially in some hot zones of the pandemic where ventilators have been in short supply and many hospitals have been stretched beyond their limits," the authors wrote.
"The demand on hospital resources during the COVID-19 crisis has not occurred before in the U.S., even during the worst of influenza seasons," they continued. "Yet, public officials continue to draw comparisons between seasonal influenza and SARS-CoV-2 mortality, often in an attempt to minimize the effects of the unfolding pandemic."