Washington health care providers responding to the rapidly expanding coronavirus outbreak also must contend with an active influenza season that since October has resulted in 74 confirmed state deaths.
In Washington, the number of influenza deaths is considerably less than in some recent years. But this flu season, both in Washington and across the country, has been particularly hard on children. In Washington six children under 17 succumbed to the flu, most of them under 5 years old, according to state health statistics current through the end of February.
Flu deaths don’t grab the headlines garnered by the escalating toll from the novel coronavirus, which in the Seattle area has led many public and private events to be canceled, schools to close and office workers to morph into telecommuters. But amid all this anxiety about a new virus, state public health officials are reminding residents of the continuing risks from flu strains, and urging older people and others at higher risk to check in with providers if they have a fever, cough or sore throat.
“It is really important that those who are currently sick call their health care provider … to see if they should be tested for influenza,” Dr. Kathy Lofy, the state health officer, said during a briefing organized by Gov. Jay Inslee. “Influenza is still in our community, and we do have anti-viral medication to treat influenza.”
These medications can help ease the symptoms associated with more than 99% of the flu strains identified during the flu season that began in September, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And it is not too late to get vaccinated, which can reduce the risk of contracting the flu.
For the flu, like the coronavirus, outbreaks in long-term care facilities are of special concern. Since the fall start of the flu season, there have been 51 of these outbreaks, according to a state flu update.
Prevention and treatment options can help to blunt outbreaks of the flu. The coronavirus is a new virus first detected in China, and currently has no vaccinations or medications to combat the illness it causes, COVID-19.
The stark impact of the coronavirus has been demonstrated in King County, where as of Saturday, 15 deaths were confirmed from COVID-19, most connected to an outbreak at Life Care Center of Kirkland. At this long-term care facility, the death toll from the virus could climb higher as post-mortem testing is being done on an additional 11 people who have died at the facility since Feb. 19.
The King County coronavirus deaths are still below the county’s 30 confirmed influenza deaths since the fall start of the flu season. But during the past week, the coronavirus deaths have come at a quick pace, with the early March tally nearly double the eight confirmed influenza deaths during all of February.
Nationwide, the CDC estimates that flu strains during this flu season have caused at least 34 million illnesses, led to more than 350,000 hospitalizations and resulted in more than 20,000 deaths. The estimates are based on a surveillance system set up in each state that tracks a much smaller number of confirmed influenza cases, and then models the full impact of flu outbreaks.
During the flu season, children are a major source of transmission.
“School children are an enormous factor in the spread of influenza and respiratory viruses. They tend to shed more virus than adults … and may come into contact with hundreds of different kids every day,” said Ryan Malosh, an assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
It is still unclear how efficiently children can spread the coronavirus, and answering that question is important for epidemiologists trying to understand the scope of the threat.
Recent studies from China indicate children are as likely as adults to test positive for the coronavirus, but are less likely to contract a serious case of COVID-19. Epidemiologists hope that in the months ahead, research will shed more light on whether children can spread the coronavirus as readily as they do influenza.
“That is a huge gap in our knowledge at the present time,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a health-policy professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center who specializes in infectious diseases.
In Washington, as the coronavirus takes hold, the flu season is expected to taper off in the months ahead. But flu seasons can vary greatly from year to year.
So far, this flu season’s death toll is running ahead of the 2018-19 season, but still far below the 2017-18 season, when Washington had 200 confirmed deaths from influenza by the end of February.
And the CDC considers Washington to be among 40 states with a high level of people reporting flulike symptoms to health care providers.
“It does pose a unique challenge to be dealing with a flu outbreak and coronavirus outbreak at the same time,” Malosh said. “But the lucky thing is, a lot of the preventive steps that are being taken to reduce the spread of coronavirus also will help reduce influenza.”