CentraCare doctor: Vaccinations are important to weather the resurgence of respiratory viruses this winter


— Common respiratory viruses that were quiet in the past two years during the pandemic are coming back with a vengeance this year.

Already, hospitalization levels for respiratory syncytial virus and influenza are climbing earlier and faster than in the years before the pandemic.

And COVID-19 is not gone, either. For the last six months, around 400 Minnesotans have been in hospitals with the disease every week.

Vaccinations could help protect the state and its most vulnerable residents in the coming months.

There's no vaccine for RSV yet, but flu and COVID-19 vaccinations are readily available and free. The latest COVID-19 vaccine booster is recommended for people age 5 and older.

Pfizer Inc. recently announced progress in clinical trials for a vaccine to be given to pregnant women so babies are protected after birth, but there's no timeline for approval.

Dr. Lucio Minces, an infectious disease physician for CentraCare in Willmar, said very young children, very old people and the chronically ill can be aided by being surrounded by people who are immunized.

"Influenza might be worse, RSV ... seems to be clearly worse than before, and COVID seems to be here to stay," he said in a recent phone interview. An indicator can be the Southern Hemisphere, where there were reports of a bad winter flu season this year, he said.

Continuing precautions recommended in the pandemic — like washing hands, covering coughs and staying home when sick — could help tamp down the spread of all three respiratory viruses.

People are congregating more again in schools, meetings and churches, he said, and that could lead to more spread of the viruses.

"If you are sick and have to go somewhere, wear a mask," Minces said. "There's no harm if you want to wear a mask. ... It doesn't decrease your oxygen; surgeons do surgery for hours wearing a mask."

Symptoms of the three respiratory viruses have some similarities: cough, runny nose, a decrease in appetite, fever.

Many people who catch RSV don't become seriously ill and pass off the symptoms as a common cold, Minces said.

Minces called the COVID-19 vaccines "marvelous" in their ability to reduce transmission and severe illness from the coronavirus. The latest booster has been formulated to be effective against earlier variants of the coronavirus and the current dominant Omicron variant.

Flu shots are not always as effective as the COVID-19 vaccines, but they also do a good job of decreasing transmission and severe illness.

The annual flu shot is technically a booster, he said, and the COVID-19 vaccine may join it in the list of annual recommended vaccines.

Safety rumors and conspiracy theories about COVID-19 vaccines should be in the past, he said, because the vaccines have been available for nearly two years.

According to The New York Times vaccination tracker, nearly 5.5 billion people around the world have received at least one vaccine dose, and nearly 13 billion doses have been administered.

"I don't see a clear reason why not to get the flu and COVID vaccines," he said. "It's kind of a win-win."

If people aren't vaccinated, "it's a gamble for yourself and others," he said.

Vaccinating healthy people helps protect those who are more vulnerable to illness. Healthy people who acquire one of the viruses may just have the sniffles, but they could spread it to someone who could become very sick, Minces said.

All three respiratory viruses can make babies and elderly people ill, but "healthy people who get COVID can still get pretty sick," he said.

COVID-19 hospitalizations are "not even close to what it was, but it's still unacceptable," he said.

In the state's most recent weekly report on influenza and respiratory illnesses, for the week ending Oct. 29, graphs show rates of respiratory viruses increasing earlier than in the past several years.

The positivity rate of the RSV tests and the number of positive cases have surpassed those in recent years. RSV hospitalizations have more than doubled in a few weeks to a total of almost 180 patients so far this season, with nearly 130 of them younger than 2.

So far, 72 people with flu have been hospitalized, and 35 schools have reported outbreaks. Those numbers have started increasing more than a month earlier than in recent years.