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Expert: Flu a bigger threat in U.S. than coronavirus

Jorie Goins
Tribune News Service

Despite widespread fear and uncertainty over coronavirus, a vaccine expert says the bigger threat to Americans is an illness that millions of people in the country catch every year.

“The three biggest risks to Americans: No. 1 influenza, No. 2 influenza, No. 3 influenza,” said Dr. Greg Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group.

Poland said that the flu is a bigger immediate concern to Americans who don’t have to travel or won’t come into contact with someone who was recently in an area of China where there’s a high occurrence of coronavirus. China’s Health Commission reported Sunday that there are 475 recoveries and 361 deaths in the country so far.

“The risk of coming into contact with this novel coronavirus at this time in the U.S. is unquantifiably low,” Poland said.

Flu season: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced a second seasonal wave of the influenza virus. The 2019-2020 flu season alone has seen an estimated 10,000 deaths and 180,000 hospitalizations, according to the CDC. There are currently fewer than 20 known coronavirus cases in the United States.

But with the international focus on coronavirus, Poland noted, legitimate concerns about influenza could be conflated with fear about coronavirus.

“It’s going to cause concern because everyone’s thinking it’s (an illness) coronavirus, but it isn’t coronavirus, it’s influenza,” Poland said.

Getting a flu vaccine is one of the most important preventive steps people can take, he said. The seasonal flu vaccine protects against the influenza viruses that research indicates will be most common during the upcoming season. Most flu vaccines in the U.S. protect against four flu viruses, the CDC notes.

Seeking answers: Despite the low prevalence of the coronavirus, many people are concerned about their risk of developing it. According to Google Trends’ Twitter account, interest in “coronavirus symptoms” increased by more than 1,000% the week of Jan. 20. In the U.S., searches for terms including “corona beer virus” and “beer virus” have jumped in several states. The disease, however, has nothing to do with the popular beer brand, with the name instead being a nod to the crown-like spikes that appear on the virus.

Poland said the safety measures that have been taken in China, which include closing local offices and urging employees to work from home, are warranted given the country’s population density. But those measures don’t necessarily make sense in the United States.

“We’re not talking about you and I driving to work. We’re talking about 11 million people jammed … into buses and subways and malls and buildings.”

Managing the outbreak: Stateside, Poland says coronavirus can and should be managed in a manner similar to how the SARS outbreak in 2002 and 2003 was handled.

“It was controlled with the most inexpensive, but highly efficacious, public health maneuvers.”

These maneuvers, Poland said, included wearing surgical masks, social distancing, common sense hygiene and “respiratory etiquette,” which includes coughing and sneezing into the crook of the arm. It also makes sense, Poland said, to advise against nonessential travel to China right now.

Influenza A and B viruses travel through the air in droplets when someone with the infection coughs, sneezes or talks. You can inhale the droplets directly, or you can pick up the germs from an object — such as a phone or computer keyboard — and then transfer them to your eyes, nose or mouth, Mayo reports.

Poland said common sense hygiene and health practices can protect people from the flu. Poland believes preventing influenza, in turn, will help decrease misplaced panic about coronavirus.

“Stay away from people who are ill. Wash your hands frequently or use alcohol-based hand sanitizers and don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth. … If you’re ill, don’t go to work, don’t go to school,” he said.