The holidays are here. Family, friends and community gatherings are plenty. And while many of us have perhaps gotten too comfortable shopping and joining in celebrations without masking up, experts warn it’s not a good idea to risk exposure to the contagious respiratory viruses that are making people sick and killing some.
“It’s time to dust off those masks,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University professor and one of the nation’s foremost experts on infectious disease.
COVID-19 is still with us, unfortunately, and the virus continues to smolder. This year, though, it’s been joined by respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, and the seasonal flu, creating a triple-threat virus surge that health experts have dubbed a “triple-demic” or “trifecta of illnesses” hitting all age groups.
Tens of thousands of people are still falling ill with COVID-19, which “continues to kill hundreds of people every day,” according to the PolicyLab at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which has been tracking the pandemic.
COVID-19 infections are happening even among those who have been vaccinated or previously infected, although vaccinated patients are less likely to become critically ill or die, for the most part. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 305,082 cases a week nationally between October and November. During that time, weekly deaths totaled 2,644 and the daily average for hospitalizations is 3,525.
RSV is a common cause of illness in young children. It presents initially with symptoms resembling a common cold but can become far more severe, even requiring patients to be intubated to help them breathe.
After a tremendously challenging two-year period for medical workers because of the coronavirus pandemic, hospitals are being overwhelmed again. Emergency beds are scarce. Children’s hospitals across the country, including here in Missouri, have reported longer than normal wait times at urgent care and emergency departments as they try to deal with a rise in both RSV and flu cases.
While RSV is mostly seen in the youngest of us, people can be infected multiple times in their lifetimes. Contrary to popular belief, RSV is also very dangerous for senior adults. “It is not solely a pediatric virus,” Schaffner said.
And then we have influenza. Both RSV and the flu came earlier than normal this year, Schaffner said. And along with COVID-19, they’re “affecting the entire country simultaneously, as though the viruses coordinated to attack us all at once. It’s unprecedented.”
We think it is safe to say that no one wants to go back to the school closures, business shutdowns, massive quarantining and mask mandates we endured in 2020 and 2021. Fortunately, that’s not likely to happen because we now know how to mitigate the virus’s spread with the availability and access to vaccines, handwashing and sanitizing.
Of course there is a lot of fatigue over vaccinations and mask-wearing, and we would like to put all those prevention and mitigation efforts behind us. But now is the time to stay strong and keep your loved ones safe. “It’s time to be cautious again,” Schaffner said.
We are asking people to roll up both sleeves this year and get COVID-19 and flu vaccines, because both, while readily available, are “underutilized this year,” Schaffner said. Only 12% of Americans 5 and older have updated COVID-19 boosters, according to CDC data. It’s safe to get both at the same time. Vaccines should be a fundamental part of preparing for healthy holidays.
Schaffner said, and we agree, that “getting both vaccine boosters is the best gift people can give themselves, their family and their friends this year.”
And if you are in a high-risk health group or immunocompromised, Schaffner suggests you consider “going back to social distancing. It’s time to maybe stream a movie rather than going to the movies.”
If you do get sick — coughing or sneezing — “don’t go out and about, because you will only become a dreaded spreader,” he said.
With that, we say: Have a happy — and healthy — holiday season.