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Why you should worry more about the flu than coronavirus

February 13, 2020
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The new Coronavirus has hit closer to home after a Boston student became Massachusetts’ first case. But there is still no reason to be overly concerned about catching the virus, says Dr. Sarah Haessler, Baystate Health epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist.

As of Feb. 13, only 14 cases have been confirmed in the United States. The novel coronavirus has killed more than 1,369 people and infected nearly 47,000 people worldwide, mostly in China.

While the World Health Organization and U.S. officials have declared the outbreak a public health emergency, Dr. Haessler said right now people should be more concerned about catching the flu.

Virus Not Spreading in the Community

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the new coronavirus isn’t spreading within the community in the United States, and the risk to the public is still considered low at this time. Meanwhile, the flu is spreading.

“When it comes to preventing the flu, clean your hands often with soap and water or alcohol hand rub, cover you cough and sneezes with a tissue or your elbow, stay home if you are feeling sick with flu symptoms. And there is still time to get a flu shot,” Dr. Haessler said.

There are different strains of coronaviruses. This new one, referred to as 2019-nCoV, begins with flu-like symptoms. That makes it hard to distinguish from the flu virus.

Symptoms of Coronavirus

According to the CDC, symptoms can begin in as little as two days or as long as two weeks after exposure.

They include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing
  • Life-threatening pneumonia (some patients).

Flu symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Aches.

“We are closely monitoring the outbreak caused by this new coronavirus, and Baystate Health is following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and the Massachusetts Department of Health to test and appropriately isolate patients if they were to seek care at one of our facilities,” Dr. Haessler said.

She noted that all Baystate Health facilities are screening patients at their Emergency Departments and Urgent Care centers arriving for care by asking them if they have a history of travel from China in the prior two weeks, or if they have been in contact with another person stricken by the new coronavirus.

Person To Person Spread

Experts at the CDC at this time do not know how easily or sustainably the new coronavirus is spreading between people. What is known is that patients stricken with the virus in China had some link to a seafood and animal market in Wuhan, which suggested possible animal-to-animal spread. However, there are now patients with coronavirus who were not exposed to animal markets, suggesting a person-to-person spread.

“There is still much to be learned about this new coronavirus. What we do know for certain is that symptoms appear to be less severe than patients who had SARS during that outbreak,” Dr. Haessler said.

Other things to know:

  • Only 3% of patients diagnosed with the new strain of coronavirus need hospitalization.
  • Most patients hospitalized are older with other health problems.
  • The mortality rate for this particular new strain is less than 3%.

There is currently no vaccine to protect against 2019-nCoV infection. The best way to prevent infection is to follow the same rules suggested to stop the spread of flu and other respiratory viruses.