Infection control expert Dr. Angela Hewlett says Americans should “stay informed” about coronavirus, but remember that the flu has led to 8,200 deaths this season

By Julie Mazziotta
January 29, 2020 12:33 PM

Coronavirus is spreading rapidly throughout China, where officials have confirmed more than 6,000 cases of the respiratory illness and 132 deaths. While coronavirus has not hit the U.S. aggressively — there are just five confirmed cases, a number that has not increased in three days, and zero deaths — the Centers for Disease Control has added health screenings at 20 international airports on flights returning from Asia and urged Americans to reconsider trips to China.

But as this coronavirus outbreak dominates the news, experts are pointing out that there’s already a virus circulating in the U.S. that has been far more deadly: the seasonal flu.

As of Jan. 18, there have been at least 15 million cases of the flu and 8,200 deaths, including 54 pediatric deaths. This year’s flu season has been particularly rough — it came earlier than usual and was led by a strain of influenza B, an uncommon type that was not matched well to the flu vaccine.

“We have to put everything in perspective and remember that the flu is a virus that is already here, and we know it can cause hospitalizations and deaths in adults and children,” Dr. Angela Hewlett, medical director of the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit, tells PEOPLE. “That’s what we should be most worried about at this point.”

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She adds, though, that if people are concerned about the coronavirus, the best prevention methods are the same as those for the flu.

“It’s always important for people to remember to practice infection control methods like getting their flu shot, washing their hands, covering their cough and staying home from work or school if they’re sick,” Hewlett says. “That can prevent the spread of any illness, not just influenza, and this coronavirus would be in the same category.”

“It does appear to be transmitted in a similar way to influenza,” she says, from airborne particles that can come from a sneeze or a cough.

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Hewlett doesn’t agree, however, with wearing masks to prevent flu or coronavirus. Americans have scrambled to buy surgical masks over the last week, and major retailers like Amazon are out of stock.

“If a person is ill and seeking medical care, often a mask will be placed on them — but that’s because if you’re sick, a mask can prevent you spreading it to other people when you cough or sneeze,” says Hewlett. “Wearing a mask when you’re not sick has not been proven to help protect you with this kind of illness.”

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Overall, Hewlett says that Americans should be “more concerned” about the flu, but “stay informed” about coronavirus.

“We have to protect ourselves from influenza first, but the general public should keep an eye on coronavirus because it’s a very rapidly evolving situation,” she says. “New information is coming out every day on how we can halt the spread of this in China and the rest of the world.”

 

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