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May 19, 2024

Respiratory Illnesses On The Rise During Holiday Season

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Dec 24, 2023

The holiday season often brings people together to celebrate, but unfortunately it has also brought a surge in respiratory illnesses this year. As families gather and people travel across the country, viruses like flu, RSV, and COVID-19 are spreading rapidly. Health officials are urging caution and providing tips to stay healthy.

Illness Levels Reaching New Highs

According to the CDC, the US is experiencing unusually high levels of flu, RSV, and other respiratory illness. Influenza hospitalization rates have doubled over the past month and are now the highest observed at this point in the season in over a decade.

RSV cases are also spiking, with some children’s hospitals reporting occupancy levels not seen in decades. The early and dramatic rise has put strain on healthcare systems nationwide.

“The RSV and flu surge we are currently experiencing is alarming and different from anything we have seen at this scale in recent history,” says Dr. Patel, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital.

At the same time, new Omicron subvariants BA.5 and BQ.1 are leading an increase in COVID-19 infections. Case counts are up over 30% in the last two weeks in multiple states.

With so many viruses circulating, experts say this could be the worst holiday respiratory illness season in years unless mitigation steps are taken immediately.

Preventative Steps To Stay Healthy

Health officials are urging caution, especially around holiday gatherings and travel where illnesses can easily spread. Here are some tips from the experts on how to stay healthy:

  • Get vaccinated – Make sure you and your family are up to date on flu and COVID-19 vaccinations
  • Wear masks – Consider masking, especially around high risk individuals
  • Stay home if sick
  • Wash hands frequently
  • Limit contact with symptomatic people
  • Improve indoor ventilation and air filtration where possible

Officials also advise getting tested for COVID-19 before indoor gatherings and avoiding contact with others while symptomatic.

“I can’t reiterate enough the importance of not attending holiday gatherings if you are experiencing any symptoms, even mild ones,” says LA County Health Director Dr. Ferrer, “A runny nose or scratchy throat may seem benign, but you could be passing deadly illnesses onto loved ones.”

Proper prevention measures over the holidays could significantly reduce transmission and illness levels experts say.

Healthcare Systems Under Major Strain

The early and rapid spike in respiratory illnesses has put immense strain on healthcare systems nationwide.

According to Dr. Fauci of the NIH, “ICU beds are full” in many children’s hospitals dealing with the surge in RSV. Facilities nationwide are running over capacity and have little ability to handle further increases.

Staff shortages are also plaguing hospitals, making it difficult to handle the high patient load.

“This is one of the worst years ever in terms of staff and bed capacity in hospitals,” explains nurse Cliff Daniels of Massachusetts General, “We are overwhelmed and severely understaffed.”

Long ER wait times are being reported across the country, with some exceeding 12 hours.

Officials worry that if the respiratory illness spike continues, it could completely overwhelm healthcare systems leading up to the new year. Preventative efforts over the holidays are critical to avoid this fate.

What To Do If You Get Sick

If you do become ill this holiday season, here are some steps to take:

  • Isolate yourself from others as soon as symptoms develop
  • Get tested to identify your illness
  • Contact a telehealth provider if symptoms become concerning
  • Only visit an ER for severe symptoms like difficulty breathing
  • Wear a high-quality, well-fitted mask if you must leave isolation
  • Rest, stay hydrated, and consider over-the-counter medications for symptom relief

Officials also recommend having a plan in place for caring for sick family members while limiting disease exposure to others in the household.

Holiday Travel Heightens Risks

The holiday travel period poses particularly high risks for illness transmission and has experts worried.

Airports, airplanes, bus stations, and other transport hubs facilitate rapid disease spread across geographic regions. Dr. Walensky of the CDC notes that “mobility tracking data shows a tremendous increase in travel” right as respiratory viruses accelerate across the US.

“Travel is risky right now with illnesses expanding exponentially,” warns UCLA infectious disease expert Dr. Otto Yang.

For those that must travel, health officials recommend wearing high-quality masks at all times in transit hubs and on conveyances themselves. N95 and KN95 masks provide the best protection. Staying up to date on vaccinations is also key before hitting the road or skies.

Officials say avoiding travel until illnesses wane is the best option though for those that have flexibility.

What Happens Next

Experts expect the surge in flu, RSV, and COVID-19 to continue rising in the near term and likely peak sometime in January based on historical trends.

“Illness levels often don’t peak until early January, meaning we likely have a few more brutal weeks ahead” projects Mayo Clinic infectious disease specialist Dr. Poland.

The persistence of these viruses also has scientists worried about amplification effects. For example, flu infections damaging lung tissue could lead to more severe COVID-19 outcomes if both viruses co-circulate in communities.

To blunt further increases, officials are pleading with the public to exercise caution around holiday gatherings and travel. Widespread adoption of prevention habits like masking, isolation when ill, and improved ventilation could help flatten incidence curves.

In particular, health officials ask that high-risk populations including the elderly, the immunocompromised, pregnant women, infants, and those with chronic conditions take extra precautions this season as viruses run rampant.

Widespread vaccination is also key to reduce spread and severity moving forward. Officials urge all who have not received their flu and COVID-19 shots to schedule appointments if eligible. Doing so could save lives during this crisis period.

The coming weeks will be difficult but collective action can make a difference officials emphasize.

“Working together to limit transmission over the holidays will reduce strain on overwhelmed hospitals and healthcare workers,” says US Surgeon General Dr. Levine, “So please be vigilant and make smart choices this season.”

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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