Respiratory viruses could spike after the holidays, public health experts warn


There is growing concern among infectious disease and public health experts that the US could face even more respiratory infections in January.

It is “highly likely” that respiratory viruses will spread further after holiday gatherings and New Year’s Eve celebrations, said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. , he told CNN on Monday.

“These are highly contagious viruses, and people have generally moved past Covid-19 and Covid vaccination. They haven’t been as attentive to the flu. They are not wearing masks,” Schaffner said. “And if you are around other people, it is an opportunity for these three viruses (flu, covid and even RSV) to spread from person to person. So we expect an increase in these viruses after the holidays.”

At the same time, across the country there has been a wave of flight cancellations and families stuck at the airport during their vacation trips.

When that happens, “people are together for long periods of time, they’re not wearing masks, they’re tired, exhausted and stressed, and those are times when people are more likely to spread the virus,” Schaffner said. , adding that her own granddaughter had four flights canceled over the holidays. She recommends masking up at the airport and on a plane.

“I think all of us in infectious disease and public health would recommend that masks are not perfect, but they are an added layer of protection,” Schaffner said.

Some local health officials are bracing for a possible increase in respiratory illnesses after the winter break, as seen recently after Thanksgiving, said Lori Tremmel Freeman, executive director of the National Association of Health Officials. County and City Health, in an email to CNN. Monday.

“After the Thanksgiving holiday period, we saw an increase in COVID cases of approximately 58% through the start of the Christmas holiday on December 21,” Freeman wrote. “COVID deaths also increased during that same time period by approximately 65%.”

Influenza also increased after Thanksgiving, with more than a third of all influenza hospitalizations and deaths at the time of this season being reported in the first full week of data following Thanksgiving, and cases they also increased almost as much.

Nowadays, seasonal flu activity remains high in the US but continues to decline in most of the country, according to data released Friday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Despite the improvements, it is possible that the flu has not yet reached its peak.

The CDC estimates that so far this season there have been at least 18 million illnesses, 190,000 hospitalizations, and 12,000 deaths from the flu.

As to current status of covid-19, the increases appear to be relatively small. Hospitalizations are rising in most states, though the overall rate is still just a fraction of what it was during other surges. New hospital admissions have increased nearly 50% over the last month. Hospitalizations among the elderly are nearing the peak of the Delta increase, and rising rapidly.

Freeman said reports after the winter break are expected to continue to show increases in Covid-19 cases and deaths, likely attributable to increased travel across the country, large family gatherings, fewer people keeping up with their covid-19 vaccines and flu shots and fewer people following mitigation measures such as wearing face masks and social distancing.

“Air travel is also back to pre-pandemic levels and there are no longer restrictions on wearing masks on planes or airports where viruses can easily circulate. Same for buses,” Freeman said. “Fortunately, we are seeing less RSV in children since our high points in early December, so respiratory illnesses are leveling off and becoming less part of the triple threat of COVID, flu, and RSV.”

As health officials prepare for a potential surge in respiratory viruses in the coming weeks, it may not just be the flu, covid-19 and RSV that are making people sick, said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

“We’re focusing on those three, but there are others out there: the common cold and others,” Benjamin said.

In general, “we should expect more respiratory illnesses,” he said. “The best way to reduce your risk is of course to get fully vaccinated for those of us who have a vaccine, so influenza and covid, with the new bivalent version, are the two most important right now.”

Benjamin added that it also continues to be important to wash your hands frequently, wear a mask during vacation trips, and stay home when sick.

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