'Tis the season to get vaccinated

Nov. 25—TRAVERSE CITY — For some, it may be the season for Thanksgiving, Black Friday, the World Cup, or the Michigan-Ohio State game.

But, for medical professionals, this is the middle of the "respiratory season," said Dr. Joshua Meyerson, the medical director at the Health Department of Northwest Michigan.

That means, as people gather together for holiday meals, there's an increased chance they'll pass around more than just the gravy boat. They also may share the germs and viruses that can cause illnesses such as SARS-CoV-2, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

With health officials predicting a possible surge of infectious diseases, Meyerson stressed the importance of flu and COVID vaccines for those eligible.

"The time is here," he said. "There's no sense waiting."

In particular, those getting a COVID booster now will be able to take advantage of the new bivalent vaccine, which protects against the newer omicron variant of the novel coronavirus.

That variant first began to spread at this time last year. For the past two years in a row, the Thanksgiving holiday has given rise to a flood of new COVID infections.

Some doctors have said they're less concerned about COVID as a singular threat this year, but they are wary of a so-called "tripledemic." Although flu and RSV cases remained low in the fall and winter of 2020 and 2021, there are indications they could be much more infectious this year.

RSV is a common virus which usually feels like a cold to most adults, with symptoms including runny nose, coughing, sneezing and fever.

"We've all had it before," Meyerson said.

But, this year, that virus is spreading earlier than it usually does, and it poses a more significant risk to infants under the age of 6 months, especially those with serious, chronic medical conditions.

In some cases, it can lead to pneumonia and hospitalization.

According to a late October article from Bridge Michigan, the flu has been slow to hit the state. But, when it does, the population may be less prepared to fight it off than in previous years. At the end of last month, Bridge reported about 1.6 million Michiganders had received flu vaccines this season, compared to nearly 2 million by that same time in 2021 and 2.6 million in 2020.

More recent data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services indicates that number is now up to roughly 2.3 million, which is 60 percent of the statewide goal of 4 million.

Meanwhile, state data also shows that roughly 6.9 million residents have received at least one COVID-19 immunization dose since they became available. About 1.2 million residents have received an omicron booster shot this fall.

In Northern Michigan, Meyerson said his department is not expecting to distribute many more initial doses of the COVID vaccine. Those who were interested have long since gotten their shots in the two years since the first immunizations became available.

But, while some parts of the state are reporting "booster burnout," Meyerson said there has been a decent level of demand here in recent weeks for the newest COVID booster.

Despite that, there's still plenty of availability for those who have yet to get their updated booster shots.

While it usually takes a couple of weeks for the shots to become fully effective, Meyerson said the jab is the best way to reduce a person's risk of contracting the coronavirus as the holiday season ramps up. It also means symptoms will likely be milder if a person does become infected, and they'll be less likely to pass it on to others.

"It's not a bulletproof vest, but it certainly helps reduce your risk," Meyerson said.

Beyond that, he said people also should observe standard hygiene precautions to prevent spreading disease — that means washing hands, covering coughs, and, if necessary, staying home from holiday get-togethers if the symptoms should warrant it.

Report for America corps member and data journalist William T. Perkins' reporting is made possible by a partnership between the Record-Eagle and Report for America, a journalism service project founded by the nonprofit Ground Truth Project. Generous community support helps fund a local share of the Record-Eagle/RFA partnership. To support RFA reporters in Traverse City, go to www.record-eagle.com/rfa.