Your office is a cesspool of germs, your coworkers (and their kids) are down and out, and you’re basically bathing in hand sanitizer at your desk—yep, flu season is here, and this year appears to be no joke. Add to your usual winter worries fears of the spreading coronavirus, which has jumped oceans and infected at least 40,000 people since it was first reported on December 31, 2019, and we don’t blame you for wanting to summon your inner introvert and stay home until spring.
If hibernation isn’t a possibility (and if it is, we’re jealous), we checked in with some local health professionals to find out if this flu season is worse than usual, if we should really be concerned about the coronavirus, and why the flu shot is still important.
So how bad is this year’s flu season?
Pretty bad, but not any worse than it’s been for the last couple years. Since Colorado began recording hospitalizations from influenza in 2004, last season had the second-highest rate of hospitalizations on record. The season before last had the highest.
Dr. Rachel Herlihy, Colorado state communicable disease epidemiologist, said in a phone interview last week, “We actually believe the amount of influenza we are seeing right now is probably pretty typical.” It’s worth noting that she called it “influenza” every time she mentioned it during the phone call, never “the flu,” perhaps to signify its severity (and separate it from the stomach flu, which is not influenza).
OK, but what are the numbers?
Herlihy said Colorado has been at peak levels of the flu for a number of weeks now—“well above baseline.” There is a high level of influenza circulating, and there have been an increase in hospitalizations from it. So far this season there have been 1,735 hospitalizations from the flu in Colorado, according to the most recent numbers available from the Department of Public Health and Environment. Last year, there were a total of 3,832 hospitalizations reported. The year before that had 4,650.
So far, two children have died from the flu in Colorado. The state does not report adult deaths. Nationally, this year’s flu has affected upwards of 19 million Americans, put 180,000 in the hospital, and killed 10,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What’s up with the vaccine?
The official word is “it’s not too late to get it.” Flu season doesn’t end until the middle of May. Herlihy said that even if, in some cases, the vaccine doesn’t fully prevent infection, it can prevent severe infection. “It can make a difference between having a mild illness at home versus a severe illness that results in hospitalization or perhaps even death,” she said. The groups most at-risk for a severe reaction to the flu are young kids, older adults, people with chronic underlying medical conditions, and pregnant women. Of the two children who died, the state couldn’t confirm that either of them got the vaccine. If you’re not yet vaccinated and want to get the shot now, you can find out where to get it here—just make sure to call in advance to make sure that the clinic has it in stock. The vaccine is free under most insurance plans, so what are you waiting for?
What about coronavirus I’ve been hearing so much about?
Yeah, we are all hearing about coronavirus, which causes some of the same symptoms as influenza (fever, coughing, shortness of breath). There have been about a dozen confirmed cases in the United States so far, and the virus has affected more than 40,000 people worldwide. Three Coloradans, who recently traveled to China, where the virus originated, have been tested for coronavirus, but all came back negative.
Though, we might soon have more cases, as the Army National Guard training institute near Fort Carson is on the short list for facilities that could each house up to 250 coronavirus patients in quarantine. Yes, that’s right, quarantine. The Trump administration declared the coronavirus outbreak to be a public health emergency (the World Health Organization has also declared it a global emergency), and issued the first quarantine order by the federal government in 50 years—the last time it was used was in the 1960s for smallpox.
Should I be more worried about coronavirus than the flu?
No. “Certainly we believe that most Coloradans are at a much greater risk of contracting influenza than they are the novel coronavirus,” Herlihy said.
In case you need a refresher, the symptoms of the flu are fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle aches, headaches, and fatigue. Some people, though more frequently children than adults, will also experience vomiting, and diarrhea. If you have these symptoms, contact your healthcare provider to determine the best course of action to get you feeling better and keeping the flu from spreading.