Flu, RSV and COVID-19 infections all are skyrocketing just as we’re gearing up for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
“We are officially in respiratory viral season. That includes everything you can think of from the common cold to more severe illnesses, and it has begun with a vengeance,” said Dr. Michelle Barron, senior medical director of infection prevention and control for UCHealth and one of the top infectious disease experts in Colorado.
“Sometimes we have a slow start to the respiratory season. Not this year,” Barron said. “We went from nothing to hundreds of cases in a very short time frame.”
Barron is advising people who are sick to avoid large gatherings.
We don’t have to go back to the isolation of the 2020 Thanksgiving and holidays season. But Barron is encouraging people to think of others before they travel or show up at a big Thanksgiving dinner or another holiday gathering.
“Use your common sense. If you’re sick, you don’t want to give your illness to grandma and grandpa. At the end of the day, the goal is to still be able to do things and enjoy the holidays. Just do it in a way that doesn’t impact others badly,” said Barron, who is also a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine on the Anschutz Medical Campus.
Her guidance is straightforward and familiar to most people since this is the third Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season we’re facing since the pandemic began in early 2020.
Barron’s advice for staying healthier over the 2022 holidays includes:
- Getting vaccinated to prevent COVID-19 and flu. (There’s no vaccination yet to prevent RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus), but there may be one for pregnant women soon.)
- Staying home from work, holiday gatherings and parties if you’re sick.
- Washing your hands frequently.
- Wearing a mask in crowded indoor settings.
- Testing yourself or going to your doctor’s office to get tested if you are sick. If you test positive, there are therapies that can help people early in the course of a COVID-19 or flu illness.
- Seeking emergency medical care immediately if you or your child can’t breathe or you are experiencing any other kind of medical emergency.
- Get preventive care like regular vaccines for children and adults and keep current on medications for chronic illnesses like diabetes.
“Now is the time. If you have not done it yet, get your flu shot and your COVID-19 bivalent booster,” Barron said.
Health experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also are urging people to think about indoor air quality. Keep in mind that respiratory illnesses spread through the air. Using air filters and opening windows to ventilate crowded indoor settings can help reduce the spread of respiratory illness. See how ventilation might help you stay safer by checking out the CDC’s interactive ventilation tool.
Viruses going around at the moment in 2022
The current infectious disease outlook is worrisome since doctors and public health experts are fighting a trifecta of foes: flu, RSV and COVID-19.
Last year, health experts worried about a potential “twindemic” of flu and COVID-19 cases. COVID-19 infections increased dramatically last fall and winter, but the flu season wasn’t as bad as feared.
This year, flu and RSV have hit early and COVID-19 infections are increasing this fall, just like they have for three years in a row. Twin infectious diseases that were worrisome in past years have morphed into a trio causing illnesses this year.
The current update on respiratory viruses happening in Colorado
COVID-19 hospitalizations in Colorado continue to jump week after week, from 183 in late October to 320 as of Nov. 9.
RSV infections hit so early and so hard this fall that managers at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora erected an overflow tent outside the ER in late October. Medical providers are caring for babies and children who are not as severely ill in the tent. Those triaging efforts create more space for sicker infants and children inside the hospital’s emergency and intensive care units. Many young patients are struggling to breathe due to RSV, which stands for Respiratory Syncytial Virus. RSV is an infection that causes more severe illness in babies and children. Adults can get it, but it often manifests with typical cold-like symptoms in older adults.
At Children’s Hospital Colorado, emergency departments have seen daily averages of patients that are 30% higher than during the busiest days of flu and RSV seasons in the past.
“It’s truly like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” Dr. Kevin Carney, associate chief medical officer for Children’s Hospital Colorado, said during a press conference on Nov. 9.
Hospitals for adults, like UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital, are stepping up to care for teens to ease burdens on children’s hospitals. And state health officials have once again activated an emergency hospital transfer system, which was first launched during the challenging early days of the pandemic.
Barron said this year’s RSV outbreak is overwhelming hospitals that care for pediatric patients.
“We’re seeing patients with RSV and there will be spillover in the adult population. If you have kids, you’re likely to get exposed to this, and you will get sick from it,” Barron said. “Most adults will not get hospitalized with RSV. But if you have underlying asthma or lung issues or you’re immunocompromised, your risk is higher.”
Meanwhile, flu cases are also rising. The spread of flu has been high for weeks in parts of the southern United States. Infections and hospitalizations now are increasing in Colorado and surrounding states.
Colorado health officials have begun a text and email campaign to notify adults ages 65 and older that they should be sure to get their flu vaccines. Pregnant women also are at very high risk if they get respiratory infections.
“If you are sick, do not show up at gatherings or wear a mask,” Barron said, reiterating the perennial advice she gives at this time of year.
“Be very cognizant that these infections can disproportionally impact our elderly, our very young children, and our immunocompromised hosts,” Barron said. “We want to make sure that these people don’t get infected and that everybody’s equally able to enjoy the holidays, illness free.”
Many people are tired of being careful or wearing masks. But the evidence is clear. Wearing a mask on a plane or in a crowded grocery story can drive down infection rates.
“There is zero debate on this,” Barron said. “Masking works. If you really want to see your loved ones during vacation, wearing a mask will help you prevent the spread of illnesses.”