Amid coronavirus panic, doctors remind public: Flu is deadlier, more widespread

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- With all eyes on China and travelers coming into airports, it's easy to forget an even greater public health threat to Americans is already here: the flu.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates between 12,000 to 61,000 flu-related deaths per year have been reported in the United States over the last decade.

The current flu season has been underway since the fall, and Dr. Brian Lee, director of emergency care at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, notes the numbers have vastly exceeded deaths from coronavirus.

"In the U.S., we've probably had 10,000 people who've died from the flu (this season) and millions of cases - compared to five cases of novel coronavirus. All of which have been travel-related so far."

The staff at St. Joseph Hospital are prepared for the novel coronavirus, but their biggest challenge right now is influenza. California flu deaths have more than doubled since the beginning of this year, jumping from 70 to 149.

"In terms of the scale of patients who get infected with influenza and die, influenza is the much bigger threat," Lee said.

Lee said Southern California is at the peak of flu season. Unfortunately, many coronavirus symptoms are similar to flu.

"It's going to be fever, cough and myalgias," he said, "And the main discriminating factor between the two is travel."

In the U.S., we haven't seen any person-to-person transmission of novel coronavirus, but health officials say preventing the spread of both is very similar - handwashing and covering your cough. And more people are wearing masks.

An N95 mask will give you more protection than a regular one, but when it comes to preventing transmission, it's the person who's sick who needs to wear the mask the most.

"If you're sick, you should wear the mask so that you don't contaminate others and you don't contaminate coworkers," Lee said.

There is no vaccine for the coronavirus, but there is one for the flu. Doctors say it's not too late to get a flu shot and it can help reduce the severity of symptoms.

The CDC also notes that most people in good health who get the flu will only experience mild to moderate symptoms and will recover within two weeks. More serious complications or even the risk of death is more likely in vulnerable populations who have pre-existing health conditions, as well as the very young, pregnant women and older adults.
Copyright © 2020 KABC-TV. All Rights Reserved.