Will the Coronavirus be as bad as the 1918 flu epidemic in North Carolina?

Published March 12, 2020

By Tom Campbell

My dad was four years old when his mom died from the Spanish Flu. She was one of a reported 13,000 North Carolinians who died as a result of the H1N1 virus that started in 1918. My father remembered it as a sad and scary time. Many are wondering whether the current COVID-19 or coronavirus, as it is known, could be as bad.
Everywhere you go people are talking about coronavirus and the question most want answered is how much of the media hype is legitimate and how much is alarmist over-reaction? In an interview this week with NC Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen, she responded that the coverage was legitimate, we should take this seriously and take precautions. Governor Cooper was justified in calling for a state of emergency so as to remove barriers so residents could get needed help.

At the time of our interview North Carolina had seven known cases, however that number is misleading, since testing hasn’t been available until just recently. Based on experience from other states, the infection number will grow exponentially and quickly. Statistics show one coronavirus victim infects two others. Burlington based LabCorp has developed a test and is making it available to doctors, but there are reagents required to complete the tests in labs and this process is just ramping up. Blue Cross reports those insured with them will be tested free. Unlike the more common strains of influenza there is no vaccine available for coronavirus, although Dr. Ralph Baric and a team of 30 at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health are feverishly (bad pun) trying to develop one.
We are just beginning to see the impact. At least two private schools have suspended classes because a parent or someone close to the school has been diagnosed. Duke University has extended spring break for a week and announced in-class instruction will be suspended indefinitely, urging students to return to their homes.  Expect more similar disruptions. Teachers at all levels are gearing up to deliver instruction, tests and communications online. Students also need instruction on how to function in this environment. Education becomes problematic for students who don’t have laptops, tablets or access to high speed Internet.
Many businesses are instructing employees who can work from home to do so. In times of crisis faith-based institutions are needed more than ever and churches are trying to determine best practices for worship in this environment. Sports teams face playing without spectators, as do concerts and other performances. The hospitality industry is already feeling the effects, with airlines cancelling flights and hotels having cancelled reservations. One precaution being given is to avoid big gatherings, especially for those most susceptible to both coronavirus and flu, people over 60 and those with pre-existing respiratory and other conditions. Our lives are likely to be disrupted, at least temporarily.
While a different disease, flu is still a threat. Since flu season began last October the total number of deaths reported in our state is 127, with 11 occurring the last week in February. Secretary Cohen and other medical professionals say it’s not too late to get a flu shot.
State Health Director Dr. Betsy Tilson advises there are things we can do to protect ourselves. Handshakes and close contact should be avoided. Other precautions are commonsense, like washing hands vigorously with soap and water for twenty seconds, avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unclean hands, avoiding contact with people who are ill, covering your mouth or nose with a tissue to cough or sneeze, and cleaning and disinfecting surfaces that are frequently touched. You should also develop a plan for what you will do if you must miss work or other responsibilities due to illness.
The truth is that nobody can predict how fast this virus will spread and how much it will impact our lives. We don’t need to panic and neither do we need to over-hype the situation, but it is wise to take the reasonable and commonsense precautions health officials are advising. Patience and flexibility will be the new by-words.
We have better sanitary conditions, more knowledge and advanced medicines than when the 1918 epidemic hit, but they aren’t beneficial if we don’t use every tool to prevent this from becoming another scary time.
PS – You may view the interview with DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen at www.ncspin.com