ATLANTA — Thousands of miles from Atlanta, a new and mysterious coronavirus emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December and continues to grab headlines here and around the globe. As the number of people sick and dying from the virus soars in China, worried U.S. residents are buying up surgical masks — in bulk.
But there’s a much bigger threat closer to home, public health experts say. The flu season came early, raged hard, died down a bit and is rearing up again.
“We have this big challenge where people are very concerned about the unknown and not taking care of the risk that is really there, and immediate,” said Dr. José Cordero, an epidemiologist at the University of Georgia.
In China, at least 630 people have died in the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak and more than 31,000 are sick. There are 191 cases, including one death, in 24 countries outside of China, according to the World Health Organization.
In the U.S., 12 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed, none in Georgia. There have been no reported deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes the virus as a very serious public health threat but stresses that the immediate risk to the American public is low.
Meanwhile, at least 22 million Americans have come down with the flu this season, according to the CDC. Of those, 210,000 people have been hospitalized so far and an estimated 12,000 have died.
In Georgia, 44 people have died this flu season, compared to nine at this time last year and 66 the year before, considered one of the worst seasons ever. More than 1,500 metro Atlanta flu sufferers have been hospitalized this flu season.
Throughout the state, 8.1% of patient visits to doctors were for the flu during the week ending February 1, the Georgia Department of Public Health said Friday. That’s up from 6.7% of visits the week before.
Yet, it’s the coronavirus that likely prompted Atlanta-based Home Depot to recently place a limit on the number of face masks its customer across the nation can buy — no more than 10 per order.
Cordero, who is the department head of the Epidemiology and Biostatistics Department at UGA, estimates he’s heard from as many as 15 family and friends with questions about the coronavirus. They ask what they should do to prepare, whether they should get face masks. He asks if they’ve traveled to areas of concern in China. If not, he tells them not to worry. Get a flu shot instead.
Glen Nowak, director of the Center for Health and Risk Communication at UGA, said he understands why people may be more anxious about the coronavirus than the flu.
“We’ve gotten used to the season influenza. It comes with regularity. And based on past experiences, people know people who recovered. It was a bad experience, but they recovered,” he said. “The coronavirus coverage has been alarming, and the images of people in hospitals and wearing masks, that’s a visual that this is something that is highly contagious, this is serious.”
Combine that with the measures taken to control the coronavirus — mandatory quarantines, travel bans and almost daily press conferences with the CDC — and people start to really fret. That’s not the sort of effort that goes into combating the flu, he said.
The new virus started as a cluster of pneumonia-like cases linked to a live animal and seafood market in Wuhan, located in China’s Hubei province.
Since then, the numbers have been growing dramatically every day.
There are still a lot of unknowns about the virus, including how contagious it is. The CDC says it can take anywhere from two to 14 days for symptoms to appear. And it’s still not clear whether the virus can be transmitted in the incubation period — while patients are asymptomatic.
The CDC is hoping to send scientists to China to be part of an international effort to learn more about the virus and assess the public health crisis.
Experts say the most effective way to protect against coronavirus is the same as the flu — wash your hands with soap and water, avoid touching your nose and mouth and stay away from sick people.
Preliminary figures suggest the new coronavirus appears to be more contagious but less likely to result in death than its cousin, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, which killed 1 in 10 infected patients during the 2003 outbreak.
By comparison, another coronavirus, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, killed 1 in 3 patients during outbreaks from 2012-2015. Only two patients in the U.S. tested positive for MERS, both in May 2014, and both recovered.
The mortality rate of seasonal flu is about 1 in 1,000.
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