Wrong-Way Germophobes

germ 0220Once upon a time, an aviator named Douglas Corrigan set out to fly from New York back to Long Beach, California — and somehow instead landed in Ireland, earning the sobriquet “Wrong Way Corrigan.” Well, these days he seems to have plenty of company.

Sunday morning at breakfast my friend Pete, a biologist, said that people were worried about the wrong germs, focusing on the scary new coronavirus. What ought to concern us instead, he said, is the flu.

Yesterday a very short Washington Post story proved him right: the number of Americans who have contracted the flu this winter — one winter — is figured at somewhere between 22 and 31 million. Million. And the number of flu deaths in the United States so far this winter? At least 12,000, including 78 children. The disease has been severe enough in another 210,000 Americans to send them to U.S. hospitals. All but three states are currently considered to have a “high” level of flu activity.

The coronavirus, which now has an official name, if COVID-19 strikes you as a name, is being tracked by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (which leaves the prevention out of its acronym: CDC). According to the CDC website this morning, 497 people in the United States are under investigation to determine if they have the coronavirus, and 392 of those have tested negative. Fifteen have been confirmed positive.

So let’s review: 15 people in the U.S have COVID-19, while 12,000 have died from the flu. And which of these stories is dominating the news cycle?

Were I a psychologist, I could expound knowledgeably about why this is, that people worry about the wrong things. I don’t even really have a good layman’s grasp of this phenomenon. You see it over and over again, though: people worried about flying when driving is far more lethal, and the popularity of championing a cure for breast cancer when the biggest killer of women is heart disease.

And of course we don’t want to be complacent about a disease that is killing hundreds in China, even as we’re clearly quite complacent about the flu. Which, when I say “flu” I mean influenza, not gastroenteritis, which most of us call the flu. The 24-hour stomach bug is an entirely different animal than respiratory-based influenza.

True influenza seems more like a cold, and I always wonder how you are supposed to know when to go to the doctor. Because the flu medications are really only effective if taken within the first 48 hours of the onset of symptoms, when it often seems like it’s “just” a cold.

I don’t know about your doctors, but so far every single doctor I’ve ever seen while feeling puny with what might be the flu gets very irritated that I am wasting their time when it turns out not to be the flu. “It’s a cold and I can’t do anything for you. Go home and quit bothering me.” At least, that’s what I hear.

And don’t forget the extra special doctor who was so irritated I was taking up time in the emergency room that she wasn’t even listening to the part where my symptoms were exactly the same as the time I had pneumonia, and my main concern was avoiding a repeat of that extended event.

I’ve already exceeded my five-minute research limit (we don’t want me learning too much on any given day), so I can’t tell you how longer either influenza or coronavirus has been with us human beings. But of the two, I’m going to venture that the flu has been far more deadly.

Up to 22 million people died as a result of World War I, but the Spanish flu epidemic that swept around the world starting in 1917 was twice as deadly, killing 50 million people in the span of a year. The estimate is that 500 million people, which was one-third of the total world population, contracted the disease.

Not quite 700,000 of those deaths were Americans, but it turns out the toll could likely have been lessened had public health officials not taken President Woodrow Wilson’s edict to heart about not delivering bad news. They didn’t want to alarm people or lower morale, and so little information and few warnings were released until entire communities were in the throes of the disease. (It was an H1N1 variant, and although called the Spanish flu after the king in Spain contracted it, may have started in Kansas from birds who gave it to swine who gave it to humans.)

Here’s an interesting factoid that I’m not finding scholarly back-up for this morning: I read somewhere, once, that Gunnison County was one of only two counties in the entire United States to go without a case of the flu that year. That’s because we’re small, isolated, and back then really hard to get to, and men with guns “greeted” all the trains, refusing to allow anyone to disembark.

There are too many ways into Gunnison these days for that to work, including airplanes with connections to all over the world, and so if the coronavirus wants to come, it’s going to. But so is the flu, which I imagine has already visited us this winter, as it does every year. Of the two, one of them ought to worry you far more than the other, but I’ll bet your topic of conversation on Sunday morning, like ours, was not about the flu. Until Pete, the very antithesis of Wrong-Way Corrigan, set us straight.

Whatever scary germs are keeping you up at night, remember to wash your hands like you ought to vote: early and often — and don’t take any wooden nickels from strangers. It’s just generally good advice.



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