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As Michigan braces for coronavirus, H1N1 quietly makes a comeback

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ANN ARBOR — While coronavirus dominates health news and prompts quarantines, extra airport screening, and fears of how a global pandemic might affect Michigan, another virus — arguably more deadly — has slipped into the state nearly unnoticed.

The H1N1 strain of influenza A — a descendant of the virus responsible for the 2009 pandemic that at the time was known as “swine flu” and killed thousands worldwide — has begun to surge in Michigan and across the country, said Emily Toth Martin, an associate professor of epidemiology and co-director of the Michigan Influenza Center at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. 

And that means that Michigan’s flu season, which had begun to peter out, is returning at full strength.

“Even though we had originally some data the last few weeks that flu season might be starting to taper off a little bit, we're seeing it start to go back up again,” she said. “A second strain is infecting more people.”

Martin would know.

The 1,600-square-foot lab she codirects is one of just five U.S. sites that track ever-changing influenza viruses with a specific focus on determining the effectiveness of each year’s flu vaccine.

 

That means Martin and her lab also keep a close watch on the new coronavirus. If the coronavirus responsible for the deadly respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China, spreads with confirmed cases in Michigan, this lab can expand to accommodate more testing and more staff.

Until now, testing for this particular strain of coronavirus, known for now as 2019-nCoV, had been limited to labs within the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; but on Tuesday the U.S. Federal Drug and Food Administration authorized emergency testing at certain other approved labs as well.

Coronavirus has a history

Down a pale-yellow, cement block hallway, and behind a desk piled with charts and graphs, Dr. Arnold Monto, a U-M professor of epidemiology and global public health, this week continued work on a paper about something he’s studied for years — the family of coronaviruses that each year causes countless colds.

According to FluSurv-NET, which tracks flu-related hospital admissions across the U.S., 291 adults and 74 youth have been hospitalized in Michigan’s Clinton, Eaton, Genesee, Ingham, and Washtenaw counties this flu season because of the flu, including 165 cases for influenza A/H1N1 and 230 Influenza B, Martin noted. 

While coronavirus dominates headlines, the CDC has determined that flu activity has become widespread across the U.S., likely killing more than 10,000 nationally so far this flu season, which began Oct. 1. 

Of those, 68 were children and — according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services — that included two children from Michigan. 

Focused on the coronavirus, the state health department this week activated its Community Health Emergency Coordination Center, in part, to streamline information between local health departments and the state. 

The emergency response center held two conference calls with local health departments and the effort will expand quickly if coronavirus is detected in Michigan, health officials said.

So far in Michigan, four suspected cases have been sent to the CDC for testing, and one passenger was taken from Detroit Metro airport to be tested. All test results were negative.

As in Ann Arbor, state health officials, too, say they are focusing on rising volumes of flu cases. 

Right now, “you have more risk of catching influenza going out and about than you do coronavirus,” said Brenda Brennan, manager of the state’s federally-funded Surveillance for Healthcare-Associated & Resistant Pathogens (SHARP) Unit.

Still, Brennan, Martin and others acknowledge that the flu is a somewhat known quantity. There’s a vaccine to help prevent it.

There is no vaccine for the new coronavirus and rates of transmission and mortality remain unclear. 

The earliest information suggests it will be less deadly than its coronavirus cousins that cause severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus, or SARS, and Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the NIH’s National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said earlier this week.

Containing the virus in the next four to five weeks is “critical,” Fauci said.

“It’s either going to start peaking and go into a downturn, or it’s going to explode into a global outbreak,” Fauci, who wrote “Coronavirus infections — More Than Just the Common Cold” in January for the Journal of the American Medical Association, said in an interview with JAMA.

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