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The coronavirus has infected at least eight people in the United States, with Massachusetts confirming the most recent case Saturday. But something more dangerous and much deadlier has been infecting millions of Americans.
“You are much more likely to have influenza,” said Dr. Nora Colburn, an infectious-disease physician at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center. “For a typical Ohioan or American, that would be the bigger concern.”
Not only right now, she said, but every year.
So far, there have been an estimated 19 million cases of flu, 180,000 hospitalizations and 10,000 deaths in the U.S. this influenza season – including 68 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Worldwide, seasonal influenza epidemics cause 3 million to 5 million severe cases every year and kill up to 650,000 people a year, according to the World Health Organization.
“That just far surpasses the amount of cases compared to the novel coronavirus,” Colburn said. “If you didn’t travel specifically to Wuhan, China, or have contact with a person with suspected or known coronavirus, your chance of contracting this is extremely low.”
In Tennessee, several school systems closed this week because of illness, and many school activities and games have been canceled over concerns of spreading illnesses. Though the school districts aren’t blaming flu specifically for the closures, the Tennessee Health Department reports that as of Jan. 29, eight children have died across the state from this year’s flu.
In Ohio, there have been 3,642 confirmed flu hospitalizations and at least one flu-related death of a child as of Jan. 25, according to the Ohio Department of Health.
That’s not to say the coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan in December, shouldn’t be taken seriously. The number of confirmed cases in China and 23 other countries has risen to at least 14,380, according to data from the World Health Organization, surpassing the number in the 2002-03 outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome. Chinese officials report 304 deaths.
No U.S. cases have proven fatal.
A 35-year-old Seattle-area man identified as the nation’s first person with coronavirus developed pneumonia while in the hospital but has improved after getting antiviral medication, according to a report published Friday in the New England Journal of Medicine. The man remained in the hospital as of Thursday and had no symptoms other than a cough that is improving.
WHO on Thursday declared the coronavirus a global health emergency, and the Trump administration declared Friday that the coronavirus is a public health emergency, ordering any U.S. citizens coming back from the center of the outbreak in China to be quarantined for two weeks.
Still, the risk of contracting it in the United States is low, health officials said. A bigger worry is that Americans aren’t concerned enough about the flu, doctors say.
“The flu is something that people feel like they know,” said Dr. Mark Hurst, director of the Ohio Department of Health. “It follows a predictable course. It’s something that’s familiar to people. It brings an undeserved sense of comfort about it.”
Because flu season peaks between December and February, the worst still could be to come.
In a bad year, influenza kills up to 61,000 Americans, according to the CDC.
The best way to prevent the misery of the flu and its complications is to get vaccinated, especially for children and the elderly, health officials said. And it’s still not too late, but many people don’t, Colburn said.
“People need to realize it’s also the peak of the flu season,” said Matthew Scotch, an Arizona State University researcher who uses data science to track viruses. “It more likely is, at the worse case, that they have the flu, not some strange new virus they’ve never heard of.”