CDC and health experts urge vaccination as RSV, flu, and COVID hospitalizations increase
As winter holidays are nearing and people are preparing to gather and travel, respiratory virus activity, including RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), influenza, and COVID-19, continues to rise across parts of the United States, according to health officials.
The CDC recently issued a warning about low flu vaccination coverage so far this season, while COVID-19 vaccination rates also remain low nationwide. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said this week that flu activity is still low nationally but increasing, while some parts of the country are seeing substantial COVID-19 activity.
Health experts are urging vaccination, masks, and other precautions as these viruses spread, warning the situation could get worse with holiday travel and gatherings.
RSV hospitalizations rising, especially among children
RSV has been hitting parts of the country extremely hard in recent months. New CDC data shows RSV hospitalization rates have been highest among children under 5, who are most vulnerable to severe disease.
Rates of RSV hospitalizations among young children now appear to potentially be past their peak nationally, according to one report, but activity remains high in many areas. Some children’s hospitals are still operating over capacity.
Flu & COVID cases increasing in multiple states
While RSV remains a top concern, flu and COVID-19 cases are rising across parts of the country as well.
In places like California, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Florida, health officials say they are seeing increased flu and COVID hospital admissions amid low vaccination rates. Some counties have high or very high COVID community levels based on case rates, hospitalizations, and healthcare strain.
Multiple experts quoted in reports have stressed that flu and COVID tend to peak in December-February, so cases could continue rising further nationally in the weeks and months ahead.
Health officials urge getting vaccinated for protection
CDC director Dr. Walensky said in a briefing this week that it’s not too late to get vaccinated against flu and COVID-19 to reduce risk, even into December and January.
CDC data as of Dec. 9 showed only 15% of American adults have received the updated COVID booster so far. Flu vaccination rates are similarly low, raising alarms.
“We are worried we are still seeing rates of flu vaccination coverage that are substantially lower than what we saw before the pandemic,” Walensky said.
Local health departments nationwide, from California to Ohio, Colorado, and Delaware, are urging vaccination and precautions as these viruses spread. Some have warned healthcare systems could become overwhelmed if cases continue rising over holidays without improved vaccination rates.
Several reports also highlight health officials advising wearing masks indoors or in crowds and staying home when sick to reduce transmission risks.
Respiratory viruses lead to similar symptoms
As RSV, flu, and COVID spread simultaneously, hospitals nationwide report many patients presenting with overlapping respiratory symptoms like fever, cough, congestion, and trouble breathing.
Distinguishing these infections clinically can be difficult, especially earlier on, though diagnostic tests can differentiate once ordered. All three viruses can potentially lead to severe outcomes in higher risk groups like infants, older adults, and those with underlying conditions.
One infectious disease expert explained the complex situation hospitals now face:
“It is quite difficult to distinguish among these different viruses just based on symptoms alone early on,” said Dr. Ali Rabaan at Johns Hopkins. “A person can be infected with more than one virus at the same time.”
With COVID community levels rising again in many regions simultaneously as flu and RSV activity grows, health systems in places seeing “triple threat” waves are bracing for further impact.
Outlook for holiday weeks remains uncertain
What trajectory the US will see with these viruses through Christmas and New Years remains unclear and concerning for health leaders. Someproject cases could spike further as people travel and gather, while others suggest activity may soon decline.
Projecting spread is difficult as factors like increased indoor crowding and poor ventilation raise risks for transmission, but closing schools and reduced work/social contacts for many over holidays could suppress spread.
Most experts urge caution regardless, recommending layers of protection from vaccines to masks to avoid multi-household gatherings if ill – while acknowledging many have pandemic fatigue heading into another virus-complicated winter holiday season.
Recommendations for safe holidays amid viral spread
Health organizations have provided tips for gathering more safely over holidays as RSV, flu, and COVID spread:
- Get vaccinated & boosted against COVID and flu
- Wear well-fitting masks in crowded indoor settings
- Improve indoor ventilation if gathering inside (open windows, use air filters)
- Stay home if feeling unwell
- Test for COVID if symptomatic or exposed
- Practice good hand hygiene
- Limit contact with those at high risk for severe disease
- Consider reducing gathering size or holding virtually if ongoing high community virus spread
Experts universally promote vaccination as the best way to protect against severe flu and COVID ahead of holiday virus exposure risks. But masking, distancing, testing if gathering across households, and avoiding crowds while sick are also advised.
With RSV still widespread and flu and COVID escalating in many areas, caution remains warranted. But protection through vaccines and sensible precautions can help make holidays safer despite the circulation of these threats.
Health leaders urge staying vigilant, getting needed doses to protect vulnerable groups, and reconsidering extra risks like travel based on local virus trends. Collective action holds power to reduce holiday burden on strained healthcare systems.
As Dr. Walensky concluded: “We need to protect against these viruses together.”
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