The coronavirus outbreak in China has put the world on alert and everyone from the U.S. Center for Disease Control & Prevention to our own Texas Department of Health and Human Services has issued statements and posted prevention measures. According to the CDC, “Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, some causing illness in people and others that circulate among animals, including camels, cats and bats.” The source of this particular coronavirus (2019-nCov) had not been confirmed. While the coronavirus is definitely something to be concerned about, the good news is that there have been no confirmed cases of the illness in Texas as of press time.
The CDC recommends the following preventive actions to help avoid the spread of the coronavirus, including:
—Washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available.
—Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
—Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
—Staying home when you are sick.
—Covering your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throwing the tissue in the trash.
—Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces.
If these preventative measures seem familiar, it’s because they are the same tactics we should follow to avoid other respiratory illnesses such as influenza, or the flu.
Speaking of the flu, winter is the peak season for this more common but no less harmful respiratory illness. Per an article from the Washington Post titled “The Reasons Why Sickness Surges in Winter,” the flu generally strikes most often between December and March. Other illnesses that show up most often in winter include the common cold, a severe form of respiratory illness called RSV and gastrointestinal suffering caused by rotavirus and norovirus.
Extensive research continues to be done to achieve a better understanding of why these peaks occur more in winter. Several explanations probably apply, including the theory that winter leads people to spend more time indoors inside the “breathing zone.” Within this radius of three to six feet, respiratory viruses can easily spread from person to person. Weather conditions also seem to play a role in pathogens ability to infect people. Cold weather leads to constriction of the airways and suppression of the processes that defend against infection. Our immune systems may also be more vulnerable in the winter and certain pathogens thrive best in colder weather.
One of the best ways to counter winter’s threat is with routine vaccinations, including the annual flu shot and the pneumococcal vaccine to protect against pneumonia.
According to the CDC, flu vaccines are designed to protect against the three or four influenza viruses research indicates are most likely to spread and cause illness among people during the upcoming flu season. Flu viruses are constantly changing, so the vaccine composition is reviewed each year and updated as needed based on which influenza viruses are making people sick, the extent to which those viruses are spreading, and how well the previous season’s vaccine protects against those viruses.
North Texas Medical Center requires all of our staff to either be vaccinated or wear an appropriate face mask while at work. Over 97% of our employees chose to be vaccinated this year. NTMC begins our vaccination process in October and we also encourage our staff to get a second flu shot in January to ensure their protection lasts throughout the full season.
While getting vaccinated for the flu does not guarantee that one will not contract a variant of the illness, it does help shorten the duration and severity.
The Texas Department of Health and Human Services shows the influenza activity level for our area, Public Health Region 2 and 3 (PHR 2/3) as “Widespread.” Widespread is the highest activity level on HHS’s scale. In PHR 2/3:
—7.4% of patients presented with influenza-like illness, which is above the PHR 2/3 baseline of 3.5%.
—The overall school absenteeism rate was 4.2%, of which 5.5% was attributed to the flu.
—26.9% of tests performed were positive for influenza.
Since the beginning of flu season, North Texas Medical Center has tested 859 patients for the influenza virus. Flu strain A has been relatively mild with 17 confirmed positive cases in the age group 0 to 19 year olds and 28 confirmed positive cases in individuals 20 years old and older. However, flu strain B has been much more prevalent. There have been 129 confirmed positive cases in the age group 0 to 19 years old and 70 confirmed positive cases in individuals 20 years old and older.
This and other respiratory illness led to a record-setting number of patients visiting the NTMC emergency room in December. While we are always happy to help, we highly recommend that you get a flu shot and visit a primary care provider right away if you or a friend or family member start experiencing flu like symptoms.
Remember to take the precautions mentioned above and you will likely have a happy and well winter season.
Tom Sledge is the CEO of North Texas Medical Center in Gainesville.