The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and health officials around the country are urging people to get vaccinated against COVID-19, the flu, and other respiratory illnesses before gathering and traveling for the December holidays. A convergence of these viruses is creating a “‘tripledemic’” that could lead to a difficult winter season.
COVID, Flu, RSV Cases on the Rise
Respiratory viruses like COVID-19, influenza, and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) often spread more easily in the colder winter months when people gather together indoors. So far this fall and early winter, cases and hospitalizations from these illnesses have been rising at an alarming rate.
“We expect that we’re going to see continued increases over the next several weeks,” said Dr. Jose Romero, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
In particular, RSV has been surging since the summer, spiking earlier than usual. Cases peaked in October but remain elevated. COVID-19 and flu activity are also picking up heading into the holidays.
Low Vaccination Rates Leave Population Vulnerable
A key concern is that vaccination coverage remains low for both the updated COVID booster and the annual flu shot. As of December 3rd:
- Only 15% of people overall had received the new bivalent COVID booster
- Flu vaccine uptake lagged pre-pandemic levels by about 7 percentage points
This leaves much of the population vulnerable to infection and serious illness. Young children are being hit particularly hard by RSV, with pediatric bed capacity stressed in many regions.
Officials worry holiday travel and indoor celebrations could accelerate virus transmission without more people getting vaccinated.
Aggressive Vaccine Push Ahead of the Holidays
In response to rising cases and low vaccination rates, the CDC recently issued a Health Advisory alerting healthcare providers and recommending an aggressive vaccine push before the holidays.
The agency also launched a national ‘#FluShot’ ad campaign to promote flu vaccinations.
“We want to stir those human emotions of worry, love and hope to motivate them to action,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.
State and local health departments are also stressing the importance of vaccination, especially with holiday travel and family gatherings on the horizon:
- Rhode Island: “Don’t wait – vaccinate!,” said Dr Nicole Alexander-Scott, Rhode Island Department of Health Director.
- New York: “The best way New Yorkers can protect themselves and their families is by getting vaccinated,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett.
- Maryland: “The best protection against severe respiratory illness is vaccination,” said MD Dept of Health Deputy Secretary Dr. Jinlene Chan.
What to Expect Over the Holidays
Health experts anticipate virus activity will increase through December and January as people travel and gather indoors for holiday celebrations. This could strain healthcare systems already taxed by early surges of RSV and other respiratory illnesses.
However, precautions like vaccination, masking, improved ventilation and testing before gatherings can help reduce virus transmission.
“This may be the safest holiday since the pandemic began if people protect themselves and those they care about,” said infectious disease specialist Dr. Lisa Barrett.
Looking beyond the holidays into 2023, the CDC predicts COVID and flu activity will remain elevated for weeks or months and scientists are studying the potential for more RSV surges. So vaccination and other preventative measures will remain important tools to curb virus spread.
- Respiratory viruses like COVID-19, flu and RSV are seeing elevated activity
- Vaccination rates remain low, leaving the population vulnerable
- The CDC and health officials are aggressively pushing vaccines before holiday travel and gatherings
- Precautions can help curb virus transmission amidst the ‘tripledemic’ threat this winter season
Getting vaccinated, wearing masks in crowded areas, improving indoor ventilation and testing before gatherings can all help minimize infection risk this holiday season.
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