Winter cold and flu season is here. What to know about the wave of patients
If it seems like you and everyone you know is sick right now, you’re not imagining things.
And yes, it may have something to do with the fact that many people have been wearing masks and avoiding others for the last two years or more.
But that is far from the whole story.
The researchers say there are a number of factors influencing current misery, including chance, immune system details, and the direct and indirect effects of the pandemic.
Why are so many people sick right now?
Viral outbreaks vary naturally, with some years worse than others, but COVID-19 certainly affected natural patterns, said Dr. Ofer Levy, a pediatric infectious disease specialist who directs the Precision Vaccine Program at Children’s Hospital Boston.
“It seems very likely to me that everything that has happened with the pandemic with travel and so on has altered some of these patterns,” he said.
The peak of the respiratory syncytial virus, better known as RSV seems to have happened – though it’s unclear if it came earlier than normal this year, as it did in 2021, when it peaked in the summer, or if there will be another peak later in the season.
The flu outbreak in the United States could also simply be earlier this year rather than more severe, as happened in Australia over the summer, said Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist who directs the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
the flu may have already passed in some places, with hospitalizations falling last week compared to the week before.
Although the flu vaccine seems to be a good match for the strains circulating this year, the most frequently circulating strain, H3N2, is known to cause more serious illness.
And “vaccine fatigue” has kept flu vaccination rates below average this year. Only 26% of US adults and 42.5% of children had been vaccinated against influenza as of December 9.
“The dynamics are really complicated, so it’s not surprising that we’re seeing something different this year,” said Al Ozonoff, a pediatric infectious disease researcher at Children’s Hospital Boston and the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. “COVID has really upset all the standard relationships between viruses and it will take a little while for them to recalibrate and fall into a stable equilibrium.”
Are we done with COVID-19?
Unfortunately, the pandemic is not over yet, and it is unclear when it will.
“We are seeing an unusual increase,” Osterholm said, with a 71% increase in COVID-19 deaths in the last three weeks and a 22% increase in hospital and ICU-related bed usage. “The bottom line is that this is not done,” she said.
Although the virus continues to evolve, so far researchers are not worried about new variants.
The booster shots target both the parent virus and the BA.5 variant that circulated earlier this year, but the current variants aren’t that far off, said Dr. Jeremy Luban, who studies pathogens at the UMass School of Medicine. Chan.
Otherwise, healthy people who have been vaccinated or infected within the last year should have good protection against severe disease, he said. “There is no evidence that the virus is moving away from this immune protection.”
Masking can have little impact
If the above masking factors in the current disease outbreak, Ozonoff doesn’t think it will have much of an effect. Studies do not show large differences between areas that had strict masking and those where masking was not applied.
But it is theoretically possible.
Usually, people are exposed to the flu when they are infected or vaccinated. They might get a natural boost if exposed to a similar strain some time later. Because people have been wearing masks and avoiding crowds for the past few years, the strain of flu and other viruses circulating now could be different enough to make us sick.
“For a pathogen like RSV, we rely on annual or multiple-yearly exposures to RSV to boost our immunity on a very regular basis,” said Dr. Kristin Moffitt, a pediatric infectious disease expert at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Before the pandemic, we were all experiencing that.”
Masking prevents these minor exposures and could be one of several factors involved in the current outbreak of the disease.
“We had kind of a perfect storm,” he said, where “the population-level immunity needed to keep at bay or to prevent infections from spiking was lower than it normally would have been and at the same time everyone came back, unmasked.” completely back to normal about the same time the weather started to turn cold.
Did COVID weaken our immune system?
Again, this is theoretically possible, but it’s unlikely to be the full explanation, said Dr. Duane Wesemann, who researches antibodies at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, both in Boston.
The immune system registers your exposures through antibodies, so having COVID-19 probably changed it in some way. But it’s also robust enough to handle a few years of isolation, Wesemann said.
COVID-19 was a more serious threat than the flu, RSV or the common cold, so it made sense to protect ourselves against it, even if it would now have made us a bit more vulnerable to less serious illness, he said.
“We are still winning here.”
How can I avoid getting sick?
The same strategies that worked during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic are still working, and layering them will be more effective than just doing one, experts said.
Those strategies include vaccinations. Both the flu and COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective in preventing serious illness, although not all infections.
Masking can help, particularly indoors in crowded spaces with poor ventilation, Levy said.
Stay home if you don’t feel well.
Wash your hands frequently with soap and during at least 20 seconds.
For family gatherings, especially if they include infants or the elderly or immunocompromised, it makes sense to get a rapid COVID-19 test just before gathering. Everyone with insurance is entitled to eight free tests a month and the federal government has just reopened its portal covid.gov/testing to allow people to request four additional tests by mail.
Contact Karen Weintraub at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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