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Smack dab in the middle of the U.S., Missouri can’t brag about its ocean views, like the coastal states can, or its dramatic mountain scapes, like the states that take in some part of the Rockies.

We’re in company with 14 other states that can boast of only one president born within our borders, although ours at least is a good one (Harry “the buck stops here” Truman).

California has Richard Nixon as its one and only (trust me, they’re not bragging) and Arkansas got stuck with Bill Clinton (I apologize if you’re a fan, but I’ll take Harry any day).

Virginia, in annoying show-off mode, can claim eight presidents, including the illustrious “dollar bill George,” as in Washington. We’re not in their league.

However, in winter 2020, Missourians have had something to brag about: our resistance to public health crises.

The Leader keeps a close eye on influenza statistics that are watchdogged each flu season by the Jefferson County Health Department. We also occasionally look at the nationwide analysis of the season, provided by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In mid-January, I was taken aback by the CDC’s “ILI” map, which color-codes “influenza like illnesses” by state. Most states, including all eight that border Missouri, were shaded an angry red, meaning flu activity was “high,” but Missouri was shaded green, signifying “minimal” activity.

Early last week, Missouri had risen to “moderate” flu activity, but still looked like a sort-of-safe island in a scary red sea. Iowa had dropped to orange status, but Missouri’s even-better yellow still had red neighbors to the east, south and west.

Similarly, as coverage of the China-based novel (one of a kind) coronavirus gripped the world, Missouri remained a safe haven.

By Monday, cases numbered about 17,205 worldwide with 361 deaths.

Eleven cases had been diagnosed in the U.S., but none of them in Missouri. Cases included six in California, two in Illinois, and one each in Washington state, Arizona and Massachusetts.

Missourians are good people and I’m sure none of us takes comfort in the suffering of others.

But, for once, it’s been nice to be on the sunnier side of statistics. It’s a bit of a mystery, though, on how and why we’ve been faring better than our neighbors.

Has our location in the middle of the country been our saving grace (it takes longer for the germs to get here)? Do we wash our hands more? Are we better immunized?

Last week, Jefferson County Health Department Director Kelley Vollmar acknowledged the “happy bubble we’ve been living in” but as a realist, she didn’t expect it to last. Generally, what goes around comes around.

And, at the time of our conversation, we were in the midst of that happening.

Vollmar said flu cases were beginning to rise in Jefferson County and Missouri. In fact, 24 hours after I wrote the sentence about Missouri’s yellow status, we’d risen to dark orange, indicating the lowest level of “high” influenza activity.

So residents, and health workers, too, need to keep their guard up, both for the flu and the coronavirus, Vollmar said.

“It (coronavirus) is on our radar,” she said. “Our team who works on emergency response has been monitoring the situation, which is evolving so quickly.”

She said local health officials keep in daily touch with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and look to the CDC for up-to-the-moment information.

“Our job, basically, is to do what we normally do. Monitor, get plans put together, reach out to our partners – like the hospital and first responders – and make sure everyone has the information they need,” Vollmar said. “We need to get everything prepared in case it (the coronavirus) were to spread.”

She said the Health Department had received “limited” phone calls from residents worried about the coronavirus, which had an estimated 2 to 3 percent mortality rate as of last week (compared to less than 1 percent for influenza).

Both are much less deadly than the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in 2003, which had a 10 percent mortality rate, killing 774 people around the globe.

Even so, the coronavirus is concerning, Vollmar said, because it could mutate to become more deadly and it has up to a 14-day incubation period, meaning that people could be contagious for a while before exhibiting symptoms.

Information is key, Vollmar said.

“People have been taking the time to learn about it, and the press has been extremely beneficial in sharing information. You aren’t seeing panic.”

Vollmar said health officials should take advantage of the moment. It’s the “perfect opportunity” to remind the public about the basic tenets of prevention, she said.

“Wash your hands; if you’re sick, stay home; practice good hygiene habits.”

Although there’s no vaccine yet for the coronavirus, there is for the flu, and it’s not too late to get one. The flu season extends through May.

We can all do more to protect ourselves than simply live in Missouri.

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