PEORIA — The novel coronavirus has been getting a lot of attention since coming on the scene in December, but the truth is the seasonal flu virus is currently a much bigger threat to Americans.

With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting very high flu activity in Illinois and most of the country, administrators at OSF HealthCare Saint Francis Medical Center are trying to re-direct the attention. According to the CDC, the flu has caused 180,000 hospitalizations and killed about 10,000 people, including 68 children.

“It’s very sad because we do have ways to reduce that. If everyone took a flu vaccination, your chances of dying are much smaller than if you didn’t get vaccinated,” said Lori Grooms, director of infection control and prevention for OSF HealthCare.

It’s not too late to get vaccinated — this year the flu season could run into April, Grooms said.

“Originally the CDC thought the peak would come in January, and we did peak, and we dropped off, but we are beginning to peak again, probably in mid-February,” she said. “We’ve seen our flu season lasting over the last couple of years into March and April, so if you haven’t gotten your flu shot, you should.”

The seasonal flu and the novel coronavirus from China have a lot in common. They are both upper respiratory infections that affect people differently — some get the virus and exhibit no symptoms at all, and some people become gravely ill.

But while the seasonal flu and the new coronavirus have similar symptoms, they do not belong to the same virus family. The coronavirus belongs to the same family as SARS and MERS, which have both been in the headlines over the past 18 years after making the jump from animals to humans. But also in the coronavirus family is a much more mundane illness — the common cold.

“The coronavirus has been in humans for a long, long time,” said Grimes. Until recently, coronavirus wasn’t something doctors got very excited about.

“These were the normal strains — they had been circulating person to person for a long time, and our bodies had adapted to it,” Grimes said.

Though there were tests to pin down the exact type of coronavirus, test results took longer to get back than for the patient to get over the illness. Today, tests for coronavirus have become more sophisticated, and pharmaceutical companies are beginning to work on treatments to help doctors combat the newly emerging strains of coronavirus.

Though seasonal flu is currently a greater threat in the U.S., health care workers throughout the country are keeping an eye on the novel coronavirus. At OSF St. Francis, Troy Erbentraut, director of the office of preparedness and response, has been working hard to separate fact from fiction.

“There’s an overabundance of information out there that makes it hard for people to find the truth,” said Erbentraut. “This inundation of information can cause more harm than good. We need to be cautious not to let the tail wag the dog, and make sure the information we put out there is safe.”

Comparisons of the novel coronavirus to SARS is one such piece of information that is not helpful — SARS was particularly deadly.

“So far we think the mortality rate of the novel coronavirus is about 2 percent — SARS was almost 10 percent,” Erbentraut said. “Two percent is about the same as seasonal flu.”

The fact that the novel coronavirus seems to be spreading quickly in China may also be deceptive, Grimes said.

“I don’t want to say that it’s easily spread from person to person. You have to remember the population per geographic space in China is much higher than it is in the U.S.,” Grimes said. “We have seen person to person transmission in the U.S., but it has been through close contacts, family members living in the same household.”

People live more closely in China than in the U.S. Since both flu and coronavirus are spread by water droplets produced when people cough, talk, sneeze, or laugh, it follows that people who live more closely will spread the virus faster. Just the fact that most Peorians travel to work in their own cars, not on crowded mass transit, could make a difference in how quickly a virus spreads in the population, said Erbentraut.

Regardless of whether you are worried about the novel coronavirus or getting the seasonal flu, the way to protect yourself is the same.

“Wash your hands, cover your coughs, if you are sick, stay home. Check your fever instead of guessing. And if you are sick and you don’t get better in a day or two, call your doctor,” said Erbentraut. “If we follow those simple rules, we can protect ourselves from the seasonal flu, and whatever comes along.”

Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.