As the coronavirus pandemic began to take hold, a common refrain and misconception was that it resembles the seasonal flu.
In Late February, President Donald Trump said, “It’s a little like the regular flu that we have flu shots for. And we’ll essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner.”
But the coronavirus is more deadly and experts say a vaccine could be more than a year away. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said the coronavirus is 10 times more deadly than seasonal influenza.
However, the “regular” flu is nothing to take lightly, something that is stressed by the nonprofit organization Families Fighting Flu. The organization includes families whose loved ones have suffered serious medical complications or died from influenza.
The chief operating officer of the Arlington, Va.-based organization is one of those who realized a family tragedy because of the flu. She speaks passionately about its prevention.
“So often we hear people say, ‘Oh, it’s just the flu,’” said COO Serese Marotta, who works remotely from Syracuse for the organization. “And I think even some of the families who have been personally affected have said that in the past. But we know, first hand, that the flu is not ‘just the flu.’ The flu is something we really need to be concerned with. It’s a serious disease. It doesn’t discriminate.”
Ms. Marotta originally came to Families Fighting Flu in 2010 following the loss of her 5-year-old son, Joseph, to the flu in 2009. Joseph had not been vaccinated against H1N1 influenza because at the time, the vaccine was not available in his community, a suburb of Dayton, Ohio.
The organization says that 80 percent of the children who die from the flu are unvaccinated.
Ms. Marotta served on the board of directors for Families Fighting Flu for six years before coming on-staff in May, 2016 as the COO. Prior to joining Families Fighting Flu, she worked as an environmental scientist for 16 years at a consulting firm conducting ecological and human health risk assessments for hazardous waste sites.
Founded in 2004, Families Fighting Flu was instrumental in the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices’ decision to expand its flu vaccination recommendation to include all individuals six months of age and older.
“For the past 15 years, it’s really been about education and advocacy — raising awareness about the potential seriousness of flu and the critical importance of the annual flu vaccination for everyone 6 months and older,” Ms. Marotta said in a March 12 phone interview.
For the 2019-2020 flu season, the Centers for Disease Control, based on its weekly influenza surveillance data, reported that as of March 7 in the U.S., there have been between 22,000 and 55,000 flu deaths.
“Flu activity as reported by clinical laboratories remains high but decreased for the fourth week in a row; however, influenza-like illness activity increased slightly,” the CDC reported in data for the week that ended March 7.
For the 2018-2019 flu season, the CDC reported 34,200 deaths from influenza. “Compared with the 2017–2018 season (80,000 flu-related deaths), which was classified as high severity, the overall rates and burden of influenza were much lower during the 2018–2019 season,” the CDC’s website says. “The number of hospitalizations estimated so far this season is lower than end-of-season total hospitalization estimates for any season since CDC began making these estimates.”
However, this flu season has been particularly rough on children.
“What we’ve seen this year is the pediatric flu deaths already at this point in time are record-breaking,” Ms. Marotta said.
In its March 7 report, the CDC said that influenza-associated pediatric deaths for 2019-2020 were at 144. During the entire 2018–2019 season, the CDC linked 136 deaths in children with laboratory–confirmed influenza virus infection in the U.S.
Since 2004-2005, flu-related deaths in children reported to CDC during regular flu seasons have ranged from 37 to 187.
But the CDC notes that influenza-associated pediatric deaths are likely under-reported as not all children whose deaths were related to an influenza virus infection may have been tested for influenza.
“If you ask a family personally affected, every flu season is bad,” Ms. Marotta said. “Every flu season, we have more and more families who are personally affected. This means they either lost a loved one or they had a loved one suffer serious medical complications.”
This flu season is compounded by fears of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We certainly don’t want to belittle the public health burden of influenza, but it is a little bit scary to think that coronavirus could even result in a larger burden,” Ms. Marotta said. “We don’t want people to panic. We want people to be smart and to continue practicing healthy habits and listening to public health officials and medical experts.”
Prevention trips now relate to targeting both the seasonal influenza and the novel coronavirus.
“The same precaution methods and measures apply,” Ms. Marotta said. “We hoped that people would have been doing these things throughout flu season anyway. That includes washing your hands, coughing or sneezing into your elbow, disinfecting and avoiding close contact with others given your particular circumstances.
“These are smart, everyday practices we should have already been doing during flu season. The good news is that we can continue to do these things for coronavirus.”