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Health

The Maine CDC Is Testing A Person For Coronavirus. But Its Head Says We Should Worry More About Flu

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David Goldman
/
Associated Press
In this Feb. 7, 2018 file photo, a nurse prepares a flu shot at the Salvation Army in Atlanta.

Update: Feb. 13, 2020: In a press release, the DHHS announced that the individual in Maine tested for the 2019 novel coronavirus tested negative. Maine has no confirmed cases and the risk to the general public remains low.

The Maine Center for Disease Control is testing the first individual in Maine for the coronavirus.

In a press release issued Monday, the CDC says it's in close contact with the individual, who has agreed to stay at home pending test results. Health officials released few details about the individual to protect their privacy, but did indicate the person is not associated with the alternative housing provided to Colby College students who recently traveled to China.

State CDC director Dr. Nirav Shah says the risk of coronavirus in Maine remains low.

Shah says the best thing Maine people can do is to practice good hygiene, stay home when sick, and share recent travel history with medical providers when experiencing fever, cough or difficulty breathing. Shah appeared on Maine Calling earlier Monday to share those recommendations and more.

He and Dr. Dora Mills, chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth, told host Jennifer Rooks that seasonal flu is more of a concern than coronavirus, and should be taken more seriously.

This excerpt has been edited for clarity.

Shah: To put the numbers in perspective, there have been 13 deaths, sadly, in Maine associated with seasonal influenza. Thirteen deaths. That’s more deaths in Maine than there have been in the entire country of cases of coronavirus. There’s only 12 cases of coronavirus in the country. When you talk to folks about the flu, it’s interesting, because we’re used to the flu whereas the coronavirus is new. And so human psychology is such that we’re always afraid of the thing that’s new, and that’s understandable, and that’s why we’re taking this seriously, the coronavirus threat. But it’s also important to remember that the context here matters. Influenza remains a much bigger risk for anybody in Maine, anybody in the country right now, where we are. I think what’s going on with the flu, among many things, is that it suffers from a bit of an image problem, insofar as that the image of the flu is that it’s benign, almost innocuous. Maybe what we need to do as a public health community is to rename the flu to “Infectious Virus XK2 Alpha,” which would get people concerned about it, because the fact is the flu is very, very serious.

Rooks: What do we know about how effective the flu shot is this year?

Shah: It’s too early to tell. We don’t really know what the overall effectiveness of any vaccine will be until we’re far enough into the season. It can vary year by year. The flu vaccine can vary from anywhere from being 20-30% effective all the way upwards of 60%. But even in a year when it’s at the lowest peak of effectiveness, that’s still a really good amount of protection for something that only takes a few minutes to do.

Mills: It’s also difficult this year because there’s a lot of B strain. There couple of major types of flu, influenza A and influenza B, and the B strain that is circulating is really hitting a lot of young people hard and I know I’ve heard of some young people have been hit very hard and been hospitalized with it. So, I think that’s particularly striking in this year’s flu season. And it’s never too late to get a flu shot. Even when the flu shot may not be the best match, you still are more likely to get less severe of a case of influenza if you’re vaccinated.

Shah: For every single person listening, please take a minute to get the flu shot. You’re not only protecting you, you’re protecting other people in your family and your community who might not be able to get it. It is not too late.

Rooks: You mentioned 13 deaths so far. What is the profile of those? Are these people who are older, who are immunocompromised already, or is it a variety of types of people?

Shah: One of the things that concerns me about the flu is that although quite a few of the individuals in any given year who pass away from the flu have been older or have preexisting health conditions, the flu can also strike people who are in the prime of their lives and completely healthy. It is a very, very serious illness. Just to put the numbers in perspective again, just this year so far, this flu season from October to the present, across the country, more than 10,000 estimated people have passed away from the flu. Ten thousand estimated deaths. Over 120,000 hospitalizations just this flu season alone. It’s very serious. It’s something we urge everyone to take really, really seriously.

Rooks: Let’s get back to how to protect ourselves Dr. Mills recommended washing your hands, not touching your face. Do you believe people, if they’re getting on an airplane, especially for an international flight or getting on a train, it might be a good idea to wear a mask?

Mills: What I’ve heard some experts say is that the best thing a mask does, especially the regular surgical mask with the wide openings, is that they help remind you not to touch your face with unwashed hands. So they may not necessarily prevent you from getting influenza or coronavirus the way you think that they would. The ones that you tend to get in the drugstore, for instance, they’re not closely fitting at all. And so viruses can go through the mask, but they also can come in and out around the sides of the mask.

Shah: As it relates to regular seasonal influenza, we don’t recommend routinely wearing masks. If you happen to have the signs and symptoms of the flu and you are actively coughing and you go to a health care institution, a clinic, your doctor’s office, they might put a mask on you. The function of that is to protect you from spreading it to others. But for someone who is traveling through an airport or on a bus, wearing a mask isn’t the best thing. What I would recommend everybody do is wash your hands really thoroughly, avoid touching your face and do the other things that you should be doing anyway to stay healthy. Try to exercise, get a lot of sleep at night, eat a good diet — those are the best ways to stay healthy generally, and also to protect against the flu.

Rooks: How long will a flu virus germ be active on a door handle or in a public place?

Shah: What we know is that risk depends on exposure. Some viruses are able to live on surfaces for a long time and can be passed by touching them on a surface, like the measles virus. But with viruses like some of the ones we’re talking about today — influenza, coronavirus — the main means of exposure is through being exposed to respiratory droplets. Someone’s sneezing in your vicinity, coughing on you. That’s the area that we know is the main means for transmission of some of these viruses.

To hear the full episode on coronavirus and the flu, click here.

Originally published Feb. 10, 2020 at 5:27 p.m. ET.