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Wintertime illnesses are not new, but the coronavirus pandemic has made us all much more aware of how they spread and their affects. This can make a huge difference as we once again travel to spend time with older family members.
News Director Eric Douglas spoke with Dr. Michael Stevens, WVU Health System’s healthcare epidemiologist, about flu, COVID-19 and keeping your family safe this holiday season.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Douglas: What makes the winter worse? And I know it’s a simple question, but why is it worse in the wintertime?
Stevens: Typically, we see more efficient transmission of viruses that require people to be in close proximity to each other. And in the wintertime, we see more people clustered indoors around each other. That’s why we see, traditionally, spikes in different viral illnesses like influenza.
When we look at why we’re seeing really massive spikes in viral activity this year, some of that’s related to the fact that people really haven’t been around each other to the extent that they are now over the past few years, because of COVID. The things we were doing to prevent COVID — masking, distancing — those things have sort of gone away. And we also have reduced immunity, particularly in young kids. And so we’ve seen massive increases in RSV.
Right now, we’re seeing higher influenza hospitalization rates at this time of the year than we’ve seen in over a decade. And now we’re starting to see COVID start to surge again. And so really, we’re in a difficult place with this, this idea of a tri-tripledemic.
Douglas: We are all sort of acting as if the pandemic is over. But I’m guessing you might disagree with that.
Stevens: We definitely are in a new phase of the pandemic than we were over the last couple of years. It’s something that we’re going to have to learn to live with. It’s going to be here for the foreseeable future, but it’s certainly not gone. The same way that people have a healthy respect for influenza, we all know that flu is a common virus, a lot of people get infected with it, but it can be really severe and some people have chronic problems after they get it or some people die from it.
We should have a similar respect for the virus that causes COVID as well, because it’s still a bad virus and people who are at risk for severe illness, particularly people who are older people with medical problems, immunocompromised people can still have really, really bad disease. And we still see deaths from COVID. It certainly isn’t gone. COVID hasn’t gone away. But it’s something we’re all going to have to learn to live with.
Douglas: It seems to still be affecting the older generation, older families. Is that what you’ve seen as well?
Stevens: Particularly people who are 65 and older and very high risk for severe illness. That is something we see. That’s something people can think about with holiday gatherings and the like. If you are going to be around people who are at high risk, whether they’re 65 and up, or they have medical problems, or they’re immunocompromised for whatever reason, people can take extra measures to protect the people they love coming into the holidays.
Douglas: That’s exactly where I was heading next. Coming into the holidays, without getting too cliche, we go to see grandma and grandpa, but we’re putting them at risk if we’re not taking care of ourselves first.
Stevens: I think that’s absolutely right. People can take their health in their own hands and try to prevent infections by making sure they’re up-to-date on COVID vaccinations, which really means, if you’re 5 and up, by having two COVID boosters at this point, if it’s been two months since your last COVID vaccine dose as long as you finish that primary series.
And remember, everyone six months of age and up can get vaccinated for COVID now and should. Everybody six months of age and up can get flu vaccinated as well and definitely should.
But other things beyond vaccination is masking. While you’re traveling, masking is a good idea, because there’s so much flu activity and we’re seeing COVID start to surge. And you may want to consider even avoiding big public gatherings or masking in public for the week or so before you go in and you visit somebody who’s potentially at risk.
The other thing is, if you have symptoms, even sort of mild symptoms of a cold, you should really go get tested for COVID and flu before you potentially expose somebody who could have a really, really big problem if they got COVID or flu.
Douglas: That’s an interesting recommendation to sort of lay low for a week before you leave the week before Christmas. That’s tough with Christmas parties and work and everything else, but lay low and protect yourself a little extra, take extra steps the week before you leave.
Stevens: It’s really just a practical recommendation. Hopefully that gives you a pretty good amount of time where you’re reducing the likelihood you get exposed and develop infections or you’re not exposing other folks. Wearing a high quality mask, something that fits well, ideally is not cloth, that would also give you some extra protection if you have to go live your life and go to the holiday party and that kind of stuff. All these little things will help reduce the likelihood you get infected, and then infect somebody else.
Douglas: Is there anything we haven’t talked about?
Stevens: The other thing that is sometimes brought up is antigen testing before going to gatherings. That’s still something people can do the day before they go to gatherings, although it’s less accessible now. And it’s not accessible to everybody. It’s not perfect. The bottom line is if you have symptoms, whether you have a negative test or not, you probably should isolate, not expose others.