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Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference  in 2017 (File photo) Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference  in 2017 (File photo)

Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2017 (File photo)

Eric Litke
By Eric Litke March 19, 2020

Former Sheriff David Clarke rants coronavirus is just “the damn flu” (it's not)

If Your Time is short

  • In a barrage of tweets slamming the coronavirus response, Clarke said he was tired of erring on the side of caution since this is just "the damn flu."

  • That tweet was among several removed by Twitter, a platform Clarke now says he’s leaving.

  • Coronavirus and the flu do have similarities in spread and symptoms, but there are huge differences in the death rate and ability to treat coronavirus.

David A. Clarke, the outspoken former sheriff of Milwaukee County, says he is leaving Twitter. If that’s true, he sure went out with a bang.

Clarke put the nation’s coronavirus response on blast with a barrage of tweets on March 15, 2020, some of which were later removed by Twitter. Among them:

  • He urged people to "go out into the streets" and demand that schools reopen and government stop exerting such "control over our lives."

  • He said the coronavirus is "an orchestrated attempt to destroy capitalism."

  • He insisted — without any evidence — that George Soros, a prominent backer of liberal causes, is "somewhere involved in this."


There’s plenty of potential Pants on Fire ratings to be had from the Stetson-wearing controversy-magnet, but we’re going to focus on a fourth, since-deleted tweet. 

Here’s the full text (minus a few choice words):

"I am tired of all this, ‘We have to err on the side of caution’ (expletive). We have to get back to reasonableness dammit. It’s the damn flu. Stop being afraid and start being sensible. Wash your (expletive) hands! Stop buying toilet paper. Do you (expletive) hear me????"

Clarke stepped down as sheriff in 2017 after 15 years as the county’s top cop, saying he was leaving to take a high-ranking post in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — a job that never materialized. In the time since, Clarke has also lost posts at a pro-President Trump super PAC and as a regular contributor on Fox News.

Now he’s using his free time to make the case everyone is being unreasonable because this is just "the damn flu."

Let’s break it down.

How they’re the same

Coronavirus and the flu are both viruses, and experts say they have some shared characteristics:

Risk factors — The groups of people at highest risk are similar, including the elderly.

Spread — Both diseases spread from person to person through respiratory droplets in coughs and sneezes (though it’s possible coronavirus lingers in the air longer after the sick person has left).

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Prevention — The expert advice is similar: wash your hands, don’t touch your face, stay away from people who are sick and stay home if you are sick.

Symptoms — Both cause fever, cough, body aches and fatigue, though coronavirus is more likely to cause shortness of breath.

Treatment —  Neither virus is treatable with antibiotics (those only work on bacterial infections).

How they’re different

The diseases have some critical differences, most importantly the death rate and lack of a vaccine.

Based on the current numbers, someone with COVID-19 — the disease caused by coronavirus — is 23 to 68 times more likely to die than someone who contracts the flu, based on the latest data from the World Health Organization, Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Vaccine — A flu vaccine is available and effective to prevent the flu, or at least reduce its severity. A coronavirus vaccine is not yet available, and likely won’t be for at least a year.

Treatment — There are antiviral medications that address flu symptoms and can even shorten the duration of the illness, but such medications are still being tested for coronavirus.

Death rate — The fatality rate for this year’s flu is estimated by the CDC  at between 0.05% and 0.1% in the United States. The coronavirus fatality rate was estimated at 2.3% of those infected by China’s CDC and 3.4% by the World Health Organization (though many expect that to fall to the 1-2% range once we know more about how many people have been infected).

Infections — Coronavirus has, so far, infected far fewer people. There were about 3,500 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.S. when Clarke tweeted, compared to an estimated 36 million to 51 million flu illnesses this season.

Knowledge and research — Scientists know much more about the flu, such as details on how it is transmitted, the range of symptoms and treatment. Such details on coronavirus remain a point of debate.

All this to say, the CDC and other health officials have made it clear coronavirus presents a litany of risks the standard flu does not. The overwhelmed health care systems in first China, then Italy reinforced the severity of the disease and the breadth of its potential impact here.

And the reaction of government alone  closing schools, bars, restaurants and more  makes it clear there is a stark difference between the two.

Our rating

Ranting against those who would "err on the side of caution," Clarke claimed coronavirus is just the "damn flu."

There is indeed overlap in some basic areas — what symptoms it causes, how it is spread, who is most at risk, etc. But those pale in light of the stark differences.

There is no vaccine for coronavirus. Treatment approaches are not as well established. And most critically, someone who contracts COVID-19 is at least 20 times more likely to die of the disease than someone with the flu, based on the best available data.

The overall theme from Clarke’s tweetstorm was that the coronavirus is no big deal — that the disease is just the same old flu virus with a heaping spoonful of government overreach.

That flies in the face of lots of established science, as well as what nations like China and Italy have already experienced.

We rate Clarke’s claim Pants on Fire.

Our Sources

New York Magazine, Thank God David A. Clarke Isn’t Running a County Jail Anymore, March 17, 2020

World Health Organization, Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), Situation Report – 57, March 17, 2020

PolitiFact National, Are you more likely to die from the flu than coronavirus? It’s complicated, March 10, 2020

Wall Street Journal, Coronavirus vs. Flu: Which Virus Is Deadlier?, March 10, 2020

Johns Hopkins Medicine, Coronavirus Disease 2019 vs. the Flu, accessed March 17, 2020

CNN, Former CDC director: Covid-19 is different from flu and we must respond differently, March 14, 2020

Washington Times, Sheriff David Clarke cries censorship as Twitter says coronavirus tweets violated platform policy, March 17, 2020

New York Times, Trial of Coronavirus Vaccine Made by Moderna Begins in Seattle, March 16, 2020

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, How COVID-19 Spreads, accessed March 9, 2020

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, How Flu Spreads, accessed March 9, 2020

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019-2020 U.S. Flu Season: Preliminary Burden Estimates, accessed March 9, 2020

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Former Sheriff David Clarke rants coronavirus is just “the damn flu” (it's not)

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