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In the Northland, the coronavirus threat is minimal, experts say

"Ordinary folks should not be worried about this," said Dr. Andrew Thompson of St. Luke's Infectious Disease Associates.

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A strain of the novel coronavirus originating in Wuhan, China, as viewed through an electron microscope. (Photo courtesy of the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention)

The infectious disease has killed 42 people in Minnesota in just a few months, and hospitalized hundreds, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

In the U.S., 180,000 have been hospitalized, and 10,000 have died, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s not the novel coronavirus. It’s the flu.

“I always advise people to do things that are within your control … to prevent influenza, which we know is here, which we know is circulating in our community, and we know is hospitalizing and killing people,” Dr. Andrew Thompson of St. Luke’s Infectious Disease Associates said Friday.

But much greater attention has been focused on a new form of coronavirus that developed late last year in the Hubei province of China and so far has claimed 638 lives, all but one of them in China, according to Friday’s update from the World Health Organization.

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A product and market research agency called Jungle Scout reported Thursday that Amazon had sold more than 20,000 hazmat suits and run out of them, a fact that the agency attributed to the coronavirus scare. So far this year, Amazon has sold 24 million medical masks, Jungle Scout said, and the price of those items had increased by nearly 600%.

Travelers arriving in the U.S. from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the disease, are being quarantined in military bases for 14 days.

Still, the disease itself has barely touched the U.S. To date, 12 cases have been confirmed, with no deaths, according to the CDC. One of those cases is in Wisconsin.

In a briefing Thursday, Tom Haupt, respiratory disease epidemiologist for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services , told reporters that the patient was a Dane County man who had been in China. He is recuperating at home in self-isolation.

Updating the report Friday, Jeanne Ayers, the state’s health officer, said that was one of 14 cases that have been checked for possible coronavirus in the state. Eight already have been found to be negative; the results aren’t yet in on the other five.

Three suspicious cases have been reported in Minnesota , said Kris Ehresmann, director of the state health department’s Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention and Control Division. All three tested negative.

None of the three came from St. Luke’s or Essentia Health, according to Thompson and Dr. Rajesh Prabhu, an infectious disease specialist at Essentia.

The message from the state and local specialists is that novel coronavirus should be taken seriously but kept in perspective.

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“You see people wearing hazmat suits; I think that is probably overkill,” Prabhu said. “This is not ebola.”

The Ebola virus, responsible for periodic outbreaks in Africa, has a fatality rate around 50%, Thompson said. It’s early to know the rate for novel coronavirus, but it appears to be around 2%. And that’s among cases that get reported, both Thompson and Prabhu noted. As with influenza, mild novel coronavirus cases may come and go without ever being reported.

Coronavirus itself is hardly new. About a third of all colds are caused by it, Ehresmann said. But novel coronavirus, as its name suggests, is a new form that likely was transmitted from animals to humans.

That makes public health precautions, such as the quarantine for arrivals from Wuhan, wise, she said. It gives health officials time to learn all they can about the disease without it getting out of control.

“What you’re seeing in China … is just an overwhelmed system where they’ve had thousands of cases, thousands of illnesses, and they can’t keep up,” Ehresmann said. “So our goal is to really slow that down, and certainly if there was a way to keep it from spreading here, we would like that.”

For Northland residents, there’s little reason to fret about coronavirus, the specialists said.

“Ordinary folks should not be worried about this,” Thompson said. “If an ordinary person doesn’t have a risk factor, they can’t contract this. I mean, you have to have been exposed to someone with active infection in order to have this.”

Instead, Ehresmann said, people should take precautions to defend themselves and others against influenza. “Good handwashing, coughing into your elbow, drinking fluids, eating healthy, getting plenty of sleep and certainly getting an influenza vaccine.”

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As it happens, all of those steps except for the vaccine also are protective measures against coronavirus, Thompson said.

“Remain calm. Get your flu shot. Wash your hands,” he said. “That’s my advice from November through April. That’s all I say.”

Related Topics: HEALTH
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