(CNN)The novel coronavirus that’s sickening thousands globally — and at least five people in the US — is inspiring countries to close their borders and Americans to buy up surgical masks quicker than major retailers can restock them.
There’s another virus that has infected 15 million Americans across the country and killed more than 8,200 people this season alone. It’s not a new pandemic — it’s influenza.
The 2019-2020 flu season is projected to be one of the worst in a decade, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. At least 140,000 people have been hospitalized with complications from the flu, and that number is predicted to climb as flu activity swirls.
The flu is a constant in Americans’ lives. It’s that familiarity that makes it more dangerous to underestimate, said Dr. Margot Savoy, chair of Family and Community Medicine at Temple University’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine.
“Lumping all the viral illness we tend to catch in the winter sometimes makes us too comfortable thinking everything is ‘just a bad cold,'” she said. “We underestimate how deadly influenza really is.”
Even the low-end estimate of deaths each year is startling, Savoy said: The Centers for Disease Control predicts at least 12,000 people will die from the flu in the US every year. In the 2017-2018 flu season, as many as 61,000 people died, and 45 million were sickened.
In the 2019-2020 season so far, 15 million people in the US have gotten the flu and 8,200 people have died from it, including at least 54 children. Flu activity has been elevated for 11 weeks straight, the CDC reported, and will likely continue for the next several weeks.
Savoy, who also serves on the American Academy of Family Physician’s board of directors, said the novelty of emerging infections can overshadow the flu. People are less panicked about the flu because healthcare providers “appear to have control” over the infection.
“We fear the unknown and we crave information about new and emerging infections,” she said. “We can’t quickly tell what is truly a threat and what isn’t, so we begin to panic — often when we don’t need to.”