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Despite New Coronavirus, Common Flu Still Big Local Concern

IMPERIAL COUNTY — While the 2019 novel coronavirus dominates headlines, no cases have been reported anywhere near Imperial County, whose residents meanwhile battle a much more familiar foe—the common flu, a top health official said.

Despite thousands of cases and hundreds of deaths from coronavirus in China, the U.S. risk remains low due to precautions put in place on a global level, Imperial County’s public health officer, physician Stephen Munday, said.

“We understand that this can be a stressful time for the residents of Imperial County with everything they are hearing about the situation in China,” he stated in a press release. 

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The county Public Health Department held a Feb. 4 press conference on the coronavirus at the County Administration Center in El Centro. Later, a press release was issued.

“I want our residents to know that our public health staff is doing everything it can to prevent the illness from spreading in our community,” Munday stated in the release.

“I encourage you to continue to show compassion and care to all our neighbors. It is important to quash actions that could perpetuate a stigma attached to the 2019 novel coronavirus,” he added.

Declared a public health emergency by the World Health Organization, coronavirus has been largely contained to China by public health officials there. However, it has spread rapidly, infecting more than 20,000 people worldwide in just six weeks, Munday said during a separate interview.

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More than 20,000 cases have been identified in China, most emanating from Wuhan City in the Hubei Province, where Chinese public health officials have quarantined the region. However, 159 confirmed cases have been found in 23 other countries, including 11 confirmed cases in the United States, all as of Feb. 4, according to the World Health Organization’s latest situational report.

There have been six confirmed cases in California, including two in San Benito County, two in Santa Clara County, one in Los Angeles County and one in Orange County. None of the cases have been the result of person-to-person contact on U.S. soil; rather, Munday said they were U.S. citizens that had recently traveled to China and returned home.

As far as what is surrounding Imperial County, there have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus detected in Mexico so far and just one case confirmed in Arizona, as of Feb. 5.

The virus has so far killed 426 people, with just one death outside China. That single death was in the Philippines, according to WHO.

Munday said thanks to drastic measures taken by the Chinese government and medical communities to confine the virus to its country, as well as unprecedented cooperation and actions at the global, federal, state and local levels, the spread of the disease has been largely kept in check.

He said since Jan. 31, the only people being allowed into the United States through its land, air and seaports of entry who have been to China recently are U.S. citizens and legal U.S. residents and their family members. All others have been barred from entering the country, Munday said.

Local public health officials have been in contact with not only Department of Homeland Security officials in the region, but with their public health counterparts in Mexicali as part of the surveillance related to the virus, Munday said.

County health officials, he said, also have been in close dialogue with local officials at El Centro Regional Medical Center, Pioneers Memorial Healthcare District and Clinicas De Salud Del Pueblo as part of their normal flu/respiratory illness surveillance directives during flu season, he said.

Homeland Security officials did not immediately return calls for comment when contacted Feb. 4.

Symptoms of the coronavirus (2019-nCoV) present much like the conventional flu, including fevers, cough and other signs of respiratory illness. As such, there are procedures and surveillance methods in place locally meant to protect the public and track the kinds of viruses infecting the public, Munday added.

“I want our residents to know that our public health staff is doing everything it can to prevent the illness from spreading in our community,”

Stephen Munday

He said this season for the common flu has been particularly virulent, with cases of influenza B coming on strong early in the season. Now health officials are beginning to see influenza B strains give way to a surge in influenza A cases.

As of Feb. 5, there have been many more cases of common flu confirmed in Imperial County in the 2019-20 flu season, compared to 2018-19, according to the county Public Health website.

There has been one confirmed flu death in Imperial County this season, with a toddler succumbing to the symptoms of influenza B in December. There have been 149 flu deaths in California this year and 68 pediatric deaths due to the flu throughout the United States, according to county Public Health.

Munday advised the local public to continue to do what it is doing to safeguard against the conventional influenza virus, including getting vaccinated; washing hands often with soap and water; avoiding touching eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands; staying home when ill; avoiding close contact with others who are ill; covering sneezes and coughs; and cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched objects.

While the conventional flu infects and kills many more people throughout the world this time of year, Munday said addressing novel coronavirus is still very important due to how fast it has spread.

Likely a new virus to people, Munday said human beings still have not had a chance to develop antibodies to the coronavirus, meaning it can spread fast. Much like SARS, the Middle Eastern flu and what was formerly known as “swine flu,” or H1N1 virus, they were all viruses that began in animals and spread to humans, who had few natural defenses to the strains.

Over time, people will develop antibodies, but there is no way to tell on what time frame that occurs; every virus is different, Munday said.

For general information about the 2019 novel coronavirus the public may visit the Imperial County Public Health Department website at www.icphd.org or visit the California Department of Public Health website at www.cdph.ca.gov.  The public is encouraged to follow the health department official social media platforms for the most updated information. 


This story is featured in the Feb 06, 2020 e-Edition.