inFOCUS: H1N1 vs. COVID-19. The difference in response


MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Md. (WDVM) — Even though it feels like forever ago– the H1N1 virus (swine flu) pandemic rocked the globe just 11 years ago back in 2009. It’s the last public health crisis many of us can remember before COVID-19.

H1N1 infected between 43 million and 89 million people across the United States, between April 2009 and April 2010, according to the CDC. Though not as deadly as COVID-19, local health officials were prepared for the worst when H1N1 showed up on their radar.

Cindy Edwards of Montgomery County’s Health and Human Services Department recalls the day the county reported it’s very first confirmed case of H1N1.

“We got a call for somebody who’s positive for H1N1 and that was a big thing. It was the first case for Montgomery County and maybe even the state,” Edwards recalls.

HHS tried to reach the individual and their family, but they weren’t answering phone calls. So, Edwards and her boss decided it was time to make a trip to their house.

“We drive over and we put on our personal protective equipment from head to toe; we were covered. We knock on the door and this very, very tall high school senior, he was maybe even a little bit older, answers the door and his mother comes to the door, also. He was our first case,” Edwards said.

Months later when a vaccine was available, she said people lined up at clinics the night before they opened as panic started to set in among residents. Panic set in especially among pregnant women and their partners, as pregnant women had been warned that due to their age, they may not have the immunity built up to these kinds of influenza strains.

“We had mostly husbands, along with pregnant women, just following me around the grounds. They wanted to make sure their wife got that shot. They were absolutely going to make sure their wife got that shot,” Edwards said.

These pandemics have had very different responses at every level. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) has been in office since 2007. He’s been around for H1N1 and now COVID-19.

“During H1N1, it was more of a national response. The states had public health institutions under their control but it was more of a coordinated response: coordinated nationally, accepted nationally than we’ve seen with COVID-19.

It can be hard to compare H1N1 and COVID-19, because of the major differences in loss of life and social impact.

“The fact is that COVID-19 is more deadly and more contagious than H1N1. We know less about COVID at this stage than we did with H1N1,” Sen. Cardin explained.

He says though the viruses are different, there are lessons to be learned from both of them.

“You’ve got to have a consistent message to the public to protect themselves. It’s got to be centralized and America needs to join the global community,” said Sen. Cardin.

When looking at the present-day pandemic, Montgomery County’s Chief Health Officer has been a key player in developing the county’s response to COVID-19. He says when it comes to any public health crisis or pandemic, it’s critical to adapt to changing times.

“It’s less about getting it right immediately. It’s more along the lines of when we find out information, being transparent and reporting that to the community and adjusting and tailoring our response as quickly as possible,” said Dr. Gayles.

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