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Will coronavirus help us reconsider the dangers of the flu?

People wear masks at a metro station in Taipei, Taiwan, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020.
People wear masks at a metro station in Taipei, Taiwan, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020. According to the Taiwan Centers of Disease Control Tuesday, the eighth case diagnosed with the 2019 novel coronavirus has been confirmed in Taiwan.
Chiang Ying-ying, Associated Press

Imagine a disease that strikes the United States at the onset of winter and that, by the end of January, has sickened 15 million people and killed 8,200. What would be the reaction?

Would people demand a vaccine? Would they wear masks and refuse to mingle with crowds? Would Jazz games and other sporting events be empty because of concern? Would businesses tell workers to stay home and do their jobs over the internet?

The truth is, such a disease already has struck. It’s just that we call it the flu, which makes it sound like yesterday’s disease — something most of us have had a time or two. Few people care. Crowded places? Bring ‘em on.

But those figures describe how many people so far have become sick and died. Here in Utah, two teenagers, both students at the Utah Military Academy charter school, recently died from different strains of it. If this season is a normal one, 36,000 Americans will perish from the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That’s the equivalent of almost 72 fully loaded two-story Airbus A380 jets crashing.

Yes, a vaccine is available. But rather than lining up to receive it, an opinion poll last December by NORC at the University of Chicago found that 37% of Americans had no plans to do so. Other reports have found that only about half of Americans end up actually getting the shot each year.

Maybe the flu has a PR problem. Maybe it should rebrand itself with a new, foreign-sounding name, something like coronavirus.

On Wednesday, Miami University of Ohio postponed both its men’s and women’s basketball games because two students there might possibly have tested positive for coronavirus. News stories didn’t say how many students have the flu right now.

I acknowledge my own profession’s hand in this perception problem. News, by definition, is something new and alarming. You will see stories about people who die from the flu, but they won’t rise in prominence to stories about threats from a new disease.

Also, it’s human nature to be scared of something new and unknown that seems to be on the rampage with no known cure.

That’s not all bad. The more aware people are of new threats, the more likely health organizations will react quickly, and the less likely governments will be able to cover up concerns, even in China, where coronavirus is a legitimate problem, having killed more than 100 people so far.

But when stores in the U.S. can’t keep surgical masks in stock, despite a CDC statement that it doesn’t see any need to wear them, you know something is out of whack.

Maybe this is why Liz Sabo at Kaiser Health News sounded a bit exasperated last week when she wrote, “For them (Americans), the flu is old news. Yet viruses named after foreign places — such as Ebola, Zika and Wuhan — inspire terror.”

By the way, this is what real terror looks like: In “The Great Influenza,” a detailed book about the Spanish flu outbreak in 1918, author John M. Barry described what happened after a popular parade in Philadelphia began spreading the disease. Within 72 hours, every bed in every hospital was filled, and people were being turned away. As the death toll rose, bodies piled up. Undertakers were overwhelmed. Some of them became sick and died. Many people kept dead relatives wrapped up in the rooms where they had died, then closed the door.

Caskets became wildly expensive, before disappearing completely. The city banned all public meetings.

“Death could come from anyone, anytime,” Barry wrote. “People moved away from others on the sidewalk, avoided conversation; if they did speak, they turned their faces away to avoid the other person’s breathing. People became isolated, increasing the fear.”

The same thing played out in cities from coast to coast. By November, Salt Lake City, Murray, Ogden and a lot of Utah cities were in quarantine.

This is not 1918, and yet, as I wrote once before, experts have warned that we aren’t much better prepared today than we were then for a true pandemic. Supply chains, not just for masks, but for all kinds of medical supplies, need to be diversified to handle a sudden rush of demand.

So far, many experts are saying the current coronavirus seems less serious than either SARS or MERS, which caused similar reactions several years ago. But so much is unknown, and it’s good to be cautious, to a point.

It is perhaps better to be concerned about apathy toward dangers with which we are familiar. We should worry about being comfortable that thousands die from the flu each year, a complacency that keeps governments complacent about turning the quest for a universal, effective vaccine into a crusade.