For two months, global health and government officials have been trying to stem the coronavirus outbreak, quarantining citizens, locking down towns and creating triage protocols in hospitals where the contagious, deadly novel virus has taken root.

As of early March, the coronavirus outbreak had infected more than 90,000 people and killed more than 3,000 people globally, the majority of whom live in China, where the illness was first detected in December. More than 100 people in the United States have been diagnosed, including at least nine people who have died.

Both the coronavirus and influenza are respiratory illnesses. Both have similar symptoms. Both are contagious. Both can be deadly.

So why the nationwide coronavirus frenzy?

“Because it’s flashy and new,” said Melissa Nolan, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of South Carolina, adding that there remain a lot of unknowns about just how severe a U.S. coronavirus outbreak could be.

The numbers only tell part of the story — largely because flu season has been going on longer than the coronavirus has existed and because researchers simply don’t have enough data yet to accurately assess which is more deadly. Further complicating health officials’ ability to control the spread of the coronavirus is that, unlike influenza, there is no vaccine for it.

The key difference between the novel coronavirus and influenza, Nolan said, is this: The flu is familiar and covid-19, the disease the coronavirus causes, is not.


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