Coronaviruses have been around for decades and are perhaps best known for causing illnesses like the common cold, with symptoms like coughing, sneezing and other upper respiratory issues.
But when a new one emerges — like the novel coronavirus discovered in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 — it calls attention to the serious threat viruses still pose, including deadly viruses we encounter every year.
“Today we are again seeing the emergence of the new virus that poses a very serious public health threat,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of CDC National Center for Respiratory Diseases, said during a press call on Feb. 3.
The novel coronavirus causes a disease similar to SARS that swept the world in 2002. As of Feb. 13 it had infected 49,997 people — including 15 in the United States — and killed 1,369 of them. The disease it causes was recently named COVID-19.
“I think we should be cautiously aware,” said Dr. Monica Berner, clinical officer of Health Care Service Corporation. “But we really should be more concerned about influenza.”
Influenza case numbers are staggering when compared with infections so far from the novel coronavirus. According to CDC estimates, 19 million people have contracted influenza so far this flu season, and 10,000 people have died.
And this year’s influenza impact is nothing new. Influenza has caused between 9.3 million and 49 million illnesses and between 12,000 and 61,000 deaths each year in the U.S. since 2010.
“The good news is, we have a vaccination against influenza,” said Dr. Berner. “We don’t have one against the coronavirus.”
Even though the flu vaccine is recommended for most Americans over 6 months old, vaccination rates remain low. For instance, only 19.5% of members in HCSC's Illinois plan got the flu shot this season, according to claims data, down 4.1% from last year.
Dr. Berner noted this may be an underestimate, as not every flu shot results in a claim. But there is room for improvement. “Except in extremely rare situations, there is not a good evidence-based reason to not get the flu shot,” she said.
Other than the influenza vaccine, the same preventive measures work for both the flu and coronavirus. Those include:
- Washing hands frequently
- Avoiding touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands
- Avoiding close contact with people who are sick
Preventive measures like those above can help prevent a costly hospitalization. The cost of flu-related medical claims for HCSC's five state plans totals $37.8 million so far this flu season.
“The most cost-effective treatment is prevention, always,” Dr. Berner noted.
So while the newness of the novel coronavirus has captured everyone’s attention, that attention could help prevent pandemics of all sorts in the future.
“It’s important to call out the fact that we are still not immune from pandemics,” Dr. Berner said. “I think a lot of us think, ‘Oh, those are things that happened decades ago.’ Well, they can happen nowadays. It brings us back to the reality of how serious some of these infections can be.”