Amid the coronavirus outbreak, don’t forget about seasonal flu!

While the COVID-19 outbreak may be the most prominent infectious disease headline in today’s news, it is still peak flu season and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is reporting increased flu activity across the US. 

Amid the outbreak of COVID-19, a disease we are still learning about, it is easy for this concern to overshadow the risk of seasonal flu, formally known as influenza.

The CDC estimates there have been at least 29 million flu cases this season, including 280,000 hospitalizations and 16,000 deaths. 

As of February 26, The World Health Organization (WHO) reported there are 53 confirmed cases of the growing COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. These COVID-19 cases are isolated, with many having reported recent travel to China or were among the 400 US citizens repatriated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

Both the flu and the coronavirus can cause serious illness. Yet, the flu continues to receive less attention from the media and the public.

This is important because as the flu season persists, there is still opportunity to get vaccinated or take other measures to prevent flu infection, even amidst another concerning outbreak. 

Events that receive global news coverage have the potential to exacerbate people’s perceived risk and create panic. Sensationalized reporting on new or reemerging health issues can threaten public health when the story overshadows other important issues. 

In the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, there was a lot of speculation about the origin of the virus and disease transmission. Concerned about potential exposure, the public rushed to purchase N95 masks from pharmacies and online retailers, even when the CDC did not (and still does not) recommend the use of N95 masks outside of patient care settings.  

A large increase in the demand of N95 masks has the potential to strain healthcare systems, where the supply of N95 masks is essential to ensure the healthcare workforce has the personal protective equipment (PPE) they need to operate. 

Influenza does not receive the same amount of coverage and, as a result, rarely sparks the same level of concern, even during bad flu seasons. Last season, the CDC found that less than 50% of US adults received the flu vaccine.

Perhaps this is because the flu is a seasonal, common illness that can be treated – lowering our perceived risk of flu consequences. COVID-19 however, is unfamiliar and people may feel a heightened sense of vulnerability because of the “uncertainty” factor of the disease at this time. 

The bottom line is this: Both the seasonal flu and the novel coronavirus are important public health threats.  

As we work to better understand the epidemiological characteristics of the coronavirus, it is important to take actionable and immediate steps that prevent the flu. 

These steps can help protect us all from the flu and other respiratory infections: 

Visit the CDC for additional flu prevention guidance.