As winter approaches, the risk of getting sick from respiratory viruses increases. Among the most common and potentially serious are influenza (flu), COVID-19, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). These viruses can cause mild to severe symptoms, such as fever, cough, shortness of breath, and pneumonia. In some cases, they can lead to hospitalization or death.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), flu activity in the United States is higher than usual for this time of year. As of December 4, 2023, there have been an estimated 880,000 lab-confirmed cases of influenza illness, about 6,900 hospitalizations, and 360 flu-related deaths nationally. This includes one child.
The CDC says that the flu season is more severe than it has been in the last 13 years, and compares it to the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic. One of the reasons for the high flu activity is the lack of immunity from having not been exposed to the virus for several seasons due to masking and other precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 Cases Are Still High
Despite the availability of safe and effective vaccines, COVID-19 cases are still high in many parts of the country. The CDC reports that as of December 5, 2023, there have been over 50 million cases and over 800,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the United States. The highly contagious delta variant remains the dominant strain, accounting for more than 99% of sequenced samples.
The CDC also warns that there is a new variant of concern, called omicron, that has been detected in several countries, including the United States. Omicron has multiple mutations that may affect its transmissibility, severity, and immune escape. However, more studies are needed to understand its impact on the pandemic.
RSV Cases Are Surging in Children
RSV is a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild cold-like symptoms in adults and older children. However, it can be more serious for infants, young children, and older adults, especially those with underlying health conditions. RSV can cause bronchiolitis, an inflammation of the small airways in the lungs, and pneumonia, an infection of the lungs.
The CDC says that RSV activity in the United States is higher than expected for this time of year, especially among children under 5 years old. From July 1 to November 27, 2023, there have been over 140,000 hospitalizations and over 1,000 deaths from RSV in children under 5 years old. This is more than twice the average number of hospitalizations and deaths for the same period in the previous five years.
One of the factors that may contribute to the surge in RSV cases is the lack of exposure and immunity among young children who were protected from the virus during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Another factor is the seasonal variation of RSV, which typically peaks in the winter months.
How to Protect Yourself and Others
The best way to prevent the worst outcomes of flu, COVID-19, and RSV is to get vaccinated, public health authorities stressed. There are safe and effective vaccines available for flu and COVID-19, and they can be given at the same time or on the same day. There is no vaccine for RSV, but scientists are working on one.
The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months and older get an annual flu shot, and that everyone 5 years and older get a COVID-19 vaccine. People who are eligible for a COVID-19 booster shot should also get one as soon as possible. The CDC also advises that pregnant people, infants, and older adults get a vaccine against RSV, if available.
In addition to getting vaccinated, there are other steps that can help reduce the spread of respiratory viruses, such as:
- Wearing a mask in public indoor settings, especially if you are not fully vaccinated or have a weakened immune system.
- Avoiding close contact with people who are sick, and staying home if you are sick.
- Covering your cough or sneeze with a tissue or your elbow, and washing your hands often with soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces and objects.
- Seeking medical attention if you have trouble breathing, chest pain, confusion, or other severe or worsening symptoms.
By following these recommendations, you can protect yourself and others from flu, COVID-19, and RSV, and help prevent a “tripledemic” that could strain the health care system and endanger lives.