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Coronavirus is scary, but the flu is deadlier, more widespread

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 2/1/2020 Megan Henry and Grace Hauck, USA TODAY NETWORK
a woman talking on a cell phone: 'We do not want to risk our lives': Amid coronavirus scares, colleges try to keep healthy, calm © Provided by USA TODAY 'We do not want to risk our lives': Amid coronavirus scares, colleges try to keep healthy, calm

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 between 3 million and 5 million severe cases every year and kill up to 650,000 people per 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."

a man standing in a room: Zane Trace day shift janitor Rick Cottrill uses disinfectant spray and bleach in a bucket of water to kill anything that would cause students and faculty to get sick at Zane Trace High School on Jan. 30, 2020, in Chillicothe. He and his colleagues wiped down everything in the school touched by students - desks, light switches, walls, lockers, computers, etc. © Robert McGraw/Gazette Zane Trace day shift janitor Rick Cottrill uses disinfectant spray and bleach in a bucket of water to kill anything that would cause students and faculty to get sick at Zane Trace High School on Jan. 30, 2020, in Chillicothe. He and his colleagues wiped down everything in the school touched by students - desks, light switches, walls, lockers, computers, etc.

In Tennessee, several school systems closed this week due to illness, and many school activities and games have also 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 11,955, 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 259 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.

The 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 adequately concerned 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.”

Just under half of American adults got a flu shot last season, and 62% of children were vaccinated, according to the CDC.

Unlike the flu, there is no vaccine for the coronavirus right now, and no one knows exactly how it is spread.

"There’s a lot that we don’t know," Colburn said. "So that’s, I think, part of the issue why people are so nervous."

Some nervousness surrounding the coronavirus can be a good thing and will help people be more prepared, said Travis Westbrook, a clinical psychologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

But if your anxiety about the coronavirus is overwhelming, he said, it could be time to seek professional help.

"People are anxious because anxiety is a common response to things that are new and threatening," he said. "Coronavirus is new."

What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

Common symptoms of coronavirus include fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. 

Experts are unsure of whether the virus is able to transmit before symptoms appear or after. If it worsens, it can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure or even death.

What are the symptoms of the flu? 

  • Muscle or body aches 
  • Fatigue 
  • Headaches 
  • Cough 
  • Sore throat 
  • Runny or stuffy nose

What is the treatment for flu? 

Antiviral drugs can be a treatment option for the flu. "When used for treatment, antiviral drugs can lessen symptoms and shorten the time you are sick by one or two days. They also can prevent serious flu complications, like pneumonia," according to the CDC. 

Antiviral drugs are not sold over-the-counter. You'd need to get a prescription from a health care provider in order to get them. 

Should you get a flu shot? 

The flu is not only contagious, but complications include pneumonia, brain and heart inflammation, worsened chronic conditions and more. 

For people 6 months and older, an annual seasonal flu vaccine is the best way to help protect against flu, according to the CDC.

What are the side effects of the flu shot?

According to the CDC, you could experience a few things after getting a flu shot, including soreness, headache, fever, muscle aches, nausea and fatigue.

Henry reports for the Columbus Dispatch her Twitter at @megankhenry. Jasmine Vaughn-Hall of the York (Pa.) Daily Record, Vincent Gabrielle of Knoxville News Sentinel and Amanda Morris of the Arizona Republic contributed to this report.

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