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Most of us should be more worried about influenza than coronavirus

Most of us should be more worried about influenza than coronavirus

Feb. 19, 2020

By Mary Wade Burnside

We all know the drill when it comes to seasonal influenza. And yet, it still needs to be said.

Your best protection against influenza is getting a flu vaccine. After that, practices that will also help protect you from getting sick include good handwashing, plenty of sleep and covering coughs and sneezes. If you do get influenza, stay home and talk to your doctor about antiviral medication.

I say it still needs to be said because I don’t think I’m the only one who occasionally sees people leave public restrooms after abstaining from an encounter with soap, warm water and the friction that helps cleanse germs off. And they don’t seem to be humming the “Happy Birthday” song twice, which is also a recommended guideline for how long it takes to get a good scrub.

I don’t think I’m alone when I tell this story about a former colleague. Let’s call him Flu Guy. Flu Guy would come to the office and proudly announce that he had boldly come into work in spite of the fact that he had the flu. To him, this was a point of pride that he had eschewed staying safely at home, where he could rest, recover and not infect everyone within 10 feet.

I hated Flu Guy.

I want to make it clear that this was a few jobs ago, so this wasn’t at Monongalia County Health Department. Because knowing these rules is our job.

As you probably know, seasonal flu is upon us and cases have been on the rise. It began spiking about a month ago. So far, this season is worse than last year's and this past week, cases of influenza-like illness (ILI) surpassed those in the 2017-18 flu season. Flu does not appear to have peaked. The line on the graph is still moving in an upward direction.

One thing that is different about this flu season is that there also is another illness floating around, although not in West Virginia and so far, not in any states surrounding us either.
Novel coronavirus, now officially called Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), has been diagnosed in 15 people in seven states. They are Washington state, California, Arizona, Illinois, Wisconsin, Massachusetts and Texas. This does not include American passengers aboard a cruise ship that has not been allowed to return to the U.S.

No, we don’t want to dismiss coronavirus. And yes, the number of cases worldwide spiked this week after a decision was made to take into account cases that doctors had diagnosed using clinical methods.

In the United States, however, cases are not going up quickly. Travel from China has been severely restricted. Those who are returning from China are being put into quarantine or are undergoing self-quarantine, which basically means they will stay home for two weeks to make sure they don’t develop symptoms. Symptoms include a fever, coughing and shortness of breath.

If anyone who has not been to China develops those symptoms, it’s much more likely that the cause is another respiratory illness. After all, those are pretty basic symptoms.

Certainly, if someone has a real reason to be concerned*, action should be taken. As Monongalia County Health Department has been advising, in messaging developed with WVU Medicine and Mon Health Medical Centers, “action” does not mean going to an emergency department or physician office and sitting in a waiting room.

Instead, there are two phone numbers to call: the WVU Medical Access and Referral System (MARS) line at 304-598-6000 and Mon Health Medical Center at 304-285-3798.

*In terms of who should be concerned, guidance has been divided into three categories, all of which require a person to have either just returned from China or to have interacted with someone who has just returned from China who has been confirmed to be ill.

As MCHD stated in a press release last week (available online at monchd.org/press-releases.html), these guidelines include: (1) individuals with fever OR signs of lower respiratory illness AND who have had close contact with a person confirmed to have coronavirus within 14 days of symptom onset; (2) fever AND symptoms of lower respiratory illness AND a history of travel from Hubei province, China, within 14 days of symptom onset; and, (3) fever AND symptoms of lower respiratory illness requiring hospitalization AND a history of travel from mainland China within 14 days of symptom onset.

We’ve been fielding calls at the health department during the past week from concerned citizens from a variety of West Virginia counties who are worried about coronavirus. If a person has not just returned from China or interacted with someone diagnosed with the illness, they should not be worried about coronavirus.

But flu? That’s widespread in all 55 counties.

So take precautions against seasonal influenza. And if you still haven’t gotten a flu vaccine, it’s not too late. You can call your health care provider or MCHD Clinical Services at 304-598-5119 to make an appointment.

Mary Wade Burnside is the public information officer at Monongalia County Health Department.

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