Editor’s note, March 26, 2020: The headline on this story has been updated. This story reflects CDC guidance at the time of publication at the end of January. But the world’s understanding of the novel coronavirus and its relative danger compared to seasonal influenza has changed considerably. For all our latest coverage of COVID-19, click here.
The coronavirus outbreak sounds something like the beginning of an apocalyptic sci-fi movie: After possibly originating from an animal market in Wuhan, China, the new virus has infected around 6,000 people and killed more than 100 in China alone. And while the virus has infected five people in the United States as of Wednesday, authorities at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are urging people in the US to stay calm; the new coronavirus (officially called 2019-nCoV), the CDC insists, isn’t spreading in the country. “While CDC considers this is a very serious public health threat,” the agency’s “situation summary” reads, “based on current information, the immediate health risk from 2019-nCoV to the general American public is considered low at this time.”
Experts in the US are instead calling out an even more widespread virus that’s sweeping the nation this year (and every year): the flu! People, the flu. Just because you know it and it doesn’t sound like the apocalypse doesn’t mean it isn’t incredibly dangerous. Influenza infects tens of millions of people each year and kills tens of thousands in the US, and the CDC is reminding people it’s not too late to get vaccinated.
Since October, this year’s flu has already claimed between 8,200 and 20,000 lives, the CDC estimates, and it will likely only get worse.
“In the US, the average person is at extremely low risk of catching this novel coronavirus,” Harvard Medical School’s Todd Ellerin, the director of infectious diseases at South Shore Health in Massachusetts, wrote in a Harvard blog post on Saturday. “This winter, in fact, we are much more likely to get influenza B—the flu—than any other virus: one in 10 people have influenza each flu season.”
“It’s too early to make a prediction for what coronavirus might be,” Ellerin adds in an interview with Mother Jones, but flu B is “massively outstripping” the coronavirus outbreak in the US.
It’s crucial, Ellerin says, for people to get their flu shots. And while there’s no evidence the flu vaccine will protect you from the coronavirus, getting the shot may still aid public health indirectly, Ellerin says. For the coronavirus and the flu, the “symptoms are overlapping,” so reducing the number of cases that look like the coronavirus certainly helps health officials. Research also shows that the flu shot reduces the risk of flu-related hospital visits in the first place. And for people who do end up catching the flu, being vaccinated may decrease their time in the hospital, even for strains they haven’t been protected against. Fewer flu cases each season would reduce demand for agency and hospital resources, making it easier for officials to address the coronavirus outbreak.
“It is currently flu and respiratory disease season, and flu activity is still high and expected to continue for a number of weeks,” the CDC said in a statement on Sunday announcing new cases of the coronavirus, notably keeping attention on the flu. “CDC recommends getting a flu vaccine, taking everyday preventive actions to stop the spread of germs, and taking flu antivirals if prescribed.”
While you are unlikely to get infected, if you are still worried about the coronavirus (understandable!), there are a few precautionary measures the CDC recommends: wash your hands “for at least 20 seconds,” avoid contact with people who are sick, disinfect communal surfaces, and don’t touch your face without washing your hands first. Preventing infection is key because there isn’t yet a vaccine for the new coronavirus.