The coronavirus first discovered in Wuhan, China, has caused widespread fear in Americans. However, there is a more common and older virus they should be more concerned about – the influenza.
Worldwide, there are approximately 43,000 known cases of coronavirus, with a total of 1,017 deaths. In 2019, there were 35,520,883 cases of influenza and 34,157 deaths, according to the Centers For Disease and Control Prevention.
As of today, 13 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in the United States, with 68 under investigation. There are no confirmed deaths in the country and none of these are located in Nebraska, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The flu can be deadly,” said Tim Timmons, regional director of the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department. “So far, we’ve had six influenza deaths in Lincoln this season.”
Influenza can cause complications like pneumonia, which can be dangerous for those with most vulnerable immune systems, like children and the elderly, Timmons said.
“Most people have the flu for five to six days and experience mild to more severe symptoms. This season the flu seems to be fairly mild in terms of complications, but there is still a high level of flu activity.” Timmons said.
In Lancaster County, the flu activity and the number of deaths are on the rise, with a total of 386 influenza-associated hospitalizations since February 1. When flu seasons are severe and a large number of individuals are hospitalized, the Health Department has challenges with limited hospital beds, according to Timmons.
People suffering from the flu or the coronavirus experience almost identical symptoms, yet the novelty of the latter leaves room for uncertainty, Timmons said.
“We are still learning about this new coronavirus, but the symptoms are pretty much the same. They can range from very few to very severe respiratory complications and individuals can die from it, but when it comes to how much worse the coronavirus is, we will just have to wait and see,” Timmons said.
According to the Center for Disease and Control Prevention, the coronavirus, formally known as COVID-19, is a betacoronavirus, like the middle east respiratory syndrome coronavirus, which originated in bats. The 2019-nCoV reported cases have ranged from people with little to no symptoms, to people being severely ill and dying.
The infections diseases specialist from the University of Nebraska Medical Center hosted a question and answer session this month to answer questions about the new virus.
Dr. James Lawler, co-director of Global Center for Healthy Security, said countries outside of China such as the United States are at very low risk.
“The outbreak really seems to be concentrated in the city of Wuhan, which is in central-eastern China. In the U.S., we should probably be much more worried about influenza and respiratory diseases that we know cause significant morbidity and mortality every year,” Lawler said.
Entities such as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have taken measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The University Health Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln announced two weeks ago that it will offer screenings for coronavirus, if any student happens to be exposed or feel sick.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln student Brock Nutter says that he isn’t too concerned about the coronavirus, yet it makes him feel safer to know that the university is allocating the necessary resources to help students.
“I don’t think this state is at a high risk of the virus, but it won’t harm anyone to have those extra resources if necessary,” Nutter said.
The Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department recommends people follow the same preventive measures for the flu and coronavirus: good hand washing and covering your mouth and nose when you sneeze. If symptoms are severe, the Department recommends getting checked by a healthcare provider.
“The risk right now is greatest for flu, and individuals who haven’t gotten their flu shot yet, it’s never too late to get vaccinated,” Timmons said.