Between prepping meals and ticking off shopping lists, the last thing most people want to think about is the looming threat of winter viruses during the holidays.
This should be the year that we can gather without guilt, right? The time to celebrate, eat and dance with family and friends. A chance to ring in the holidays without the word “pandemic” slipping into every conversation.
While it’s true that Delaware and much of the United States have made strides in reducing hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19, that virus – as well as flu, RSV and many other seasonal illnesses – continue to impact local communities.
But don’t say bah humbug quite yet. Delaware public health officials and pediatricians have some advice to help people navigate this holiday season amid winter viruses.
Here are five questions – and their answers – that you may be considering while traveling or getting together with family and friends.
How important is it to get this bivalent booster?
Even if people have had multiple COVID-19 vaccinations, they will not have the best protection from this ever-changing virus unless they get the bivalent booster, said Molly Magarik, Cabinet secretary for the Department of Health and Social Services.
So, what even is this bivalent booster?
Magarik explained in a recent press briefing that this latest booster targets both the original strain and the omicron strain of COVID-19, and it can reduce the severity of illness when someone is infected with COVID-19.
In the first week of November, 94% of all COVID-19-related hospitalizations were people who were not up to date on their boosters, according to the Division of Public Health. Bivalent booster vaccination rates remain low among all demographics, but are most concerning among the 65 years and older category, Magarik said.
As long as it’s been at least two months since their primary COVID-19 vaccination or their last monovalent booster, anyone 5 years old and above can get the bivalent booster.
Is it too late to get my flu shot?
It’s never too late to get an annual influenza vaccination, according to Dr. Priscilla Mpasi, a pediatric physician at ChristianaCare.
In fact, Mpasi and Magarik said they both received the flu shot and bivalent booster at the same time in the same arm. They recommended others get both shots done at the same time, as well.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is encouraging everyone 6 months and older to get their annual flu vaccine by Thanksgiving because – even though vaccinated people can still get the flu – it reduces the severity of illness if someone does get sick.
Flu vaccines and bivalent boosters are available at DPH clinics, many pharmacies, Federally Qualified Health Centers and some community events. People can find specific locations on the state’s flu vaccine finder at flu.delaware.gov.
Should I start wearing a mask again? If so, in what situations?
It may be a challenge to get back into the habit, but Magarik emphasized that no one should feel embarrassed if they wish to wear a mask while grocery shopping or visiting other crowded indoor spaces.
Public health officials say it’s a good idea to wear a mask more often this winter season, especially if someone is starting to have symptoms like a slight cough or runny nose.
Even when unmasked, DPH reminds people to cover their coughs and sneezes and continue washing their hands frequently to reduce their risk of spreading germs and viruses.
Should I test for COVID-19 before seeing my family or traveling?
Physicians and public health officials seem to agree: It never hurts to test for COVID-19, especially with the availability of at-home tests.
If people are planning to visit parents, grandparents or a large group of people, it’s wise to test for COVID-19 before and after the trip, Mpasi said.
People may also test if they have symptoms of COVID-19, or if they have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 and it’s been at least five days since that exposure, according to DPH.
After traveling, public health officials say it’s important to self-monitor for symptoms. And, as has been the advice, if someone feels sick? It’s best to stay home.
Even if it’s not COVID-19, DPH asks people to avoid spreading any germs and viruses, especially when among older adults, very young children or immunocompromised people.
What do I do first when my child comes home sick?
With many young children getting sick amid the early emergency of RSV and flu, parents may be wondering what they should do if their child starts showing symptoms of a respiratory illness.
(As Mpasi said, every household should expect some kind of viral illness this winter as children return from school or other places where they interact with other kids.)
Mpasi has the following advice:
First, get a COVID-19 test as soon as you notice that runny nose or cough.
If you don’t know where to find an at-home test, ask your primary care provider or pediatrician, Mpasi said.
If the test is positive, stay home. If the test is negative, check for other symptoms, including fever.
The higher the fever and the more days the child has a fever are indicators of the severity of the illness, according to Mpasi.
Other symptoms to look for beyond cough, runny nose and changes in breathing: a decrease in appetite and a decrease in energy.
As more symptoms appear and you see more changes in behavior, reach out to your pediatrician or visit urgent care to get treatment as soon as possible.
Emily Lytle covers Sussex County from the inland towns to the beaches, with a focus on health-related issues. Got a story she should tell? Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 302-332-0370. Follow her on Twitter at @emily3lytle.
This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: How to stay healthy amid holiday travel, winter viruses in Delaware