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New coronavirus vs. the flu: why a difference response is necessary

Posted at 3:24 PM, Mar 19, 2020

LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — Stay home. Wash your hands often. Practice social distancing.

This is currently the new normal in Kentucky, as the state fights the spread of the new coronavirus.

However, some may not understand why the state is taking such big actions. On social media, some have questioned the need for all of it. They question why schools and businesses are being closed down for COVID-19 when we don't do this for the flu.

Dr. Kathleen Winter, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Kentucky, says the reason for it is immunity - or in the case of the new coronavirus, the lack of it.

"No human has every been exposed to it before, therefore no human has any immunity," said Dr. Winter.

COVID-19, which is more commonly known as the new coronavirus, is new to humans.

"The big concern with this new coronavirus is that it's never infected humans before," said Dr. Winter. "This virus came from another animal and jumped into humans. Therefore, there are no humans that have ever had exposure to this before. Everyone is susceptible to being infected."

Dr. Winter says that's different than what we see with the flu every year. When it comes to influenza, there is some immunity.

"Every year, some people get vaccinated. It's not a perfect vaccine, but it does provide some immunity. Some people have had prior exposures to the disease - so we have some level of baseline population immunity. Therefore, we don't see this very rapid, progressive spread throughout the community," said Dr. Winter. "We don't have that with the coronavirus. We also don't have vaccines to prevent it. And we don't have any known treatments currently to help reduce the spread or help patients who might get it. So, the only real tool we have left in our toolbox is social distancing."

Dr. Winter says the goal of social distancing is to slow down the spread of the new coronavirus. That way, hospitals can properly care for their patients without being overwhelmed.

"If the transmission is slowed in the community, it's more like a trickle out of a hose versus a fire hose," said Dr. Winter. "That helps the healthcare system be able to maintain the patient load that's coming in and be able to provide the appropriate level of care that's needed for individual patients."

If the healthcare system gets too many patients at the same time, Dr. Winter says problems can arise.

"Once we are in a situation where the healthcare system is overwhelmed and there's not enough ventilators or ICU beds to fit the need, then we see the really critical situations where patients are not able to receive the care that they absolutely require."

Social distancing can prevent this from happening. Dr. Winter says another way to limit exposure to the new coronavirus is to be outdoors.

"If you're in an open air environment, it's much harder to transmit infectious pathogens," said Dr. Winter. "So, if your kids are outside playing, riding bikes, skateboards, going for a hike or a walk - these are all excellent activities and they're things we should all be doing anyway for exercise and wellness. And it's great for your mental health as well."

Kentucky's Public Health Commissioner, Dr. Steven Stack, says about 80% of people who get the new coronavirus will have mild to moderate symptoms. However, others can get very sick. And based on what scientists know about the virus, it appears it is more contagious than the normal flu.

"This new coronavirus is estimated to be about twice as infectious as the normal flu. This is based on some of the earlier studies coming out of China," said Dr. Winter. "So we think it's probably twice as contagious and because of the lack of immunity in the population, it spread much faster."