Health Knowledges

‘ Tripledemic ’ can steal Christmas. Then’s how to stay safe against flu, COVID and RSV

COVID-19 cases are rising again as are hospitalizations, according to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many states continue to recommend masking when in public, although these aren’t mandated as seen during the peak pandemic era.

But coronavirus isn’t the only illness burdening hospitals, which have also seen an uptick in RSV and flu.

“Most of the population — unfortunately — has forgotten about COVID-19 and moved on. As a result, we’re seeing a rise in cases and a rise in hospitalizations, and that worries me,” Ali Mokdad, professor of global health at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, told Politico. “Right now, with the rise of flu, RSV and COVID, our health professionals are exhausted.”

With holidays coming up, it’s crucial to take precautionary steps this winter. Here’s what we know about the viruses spreading in the U.S.

What are the COVID-19 variants circulating in the U.S.?
The coronavirus is expected to go through a series of modifications, Dr. Dean Blumberg, professor and chief of pediatric infectious disease at UC Davis Health, told The Sacramento Bee in January.

“Every time that there’s transmission of the virus, that results in viral replication,” Blumberg said. “It’s an opportunity for new mutations to occur.”

Over the summer, BA.5 was the dominant strain, behind a majority of reported cases, according to the CDC. But new omicron mutations — BQ.1.1 and BQ.1 — now make up nearly 70% of reported cases together.

The BQ.1 mutation is a sublineage of BA.5, carrying spike mutations, according to the World Health Organization. While BQ.1.1 carries an additional spike mutation.

The WHO states that there isn’t enough evidence that proves BQ.1 is more severe than other omicron variants, but it’s clear that it has transmission advantages over the other mutations.

The top symptoms to look out for are a sore throat, cough, fatigue, congestion and a runny nose, as I previously reported.

Do vaccines work against omicron subvariants BQ.1 and BQ.1.1?
The Food and Drug Administration approved the bivalent COVID-19 vaccines in August, according to a press release. These updated vaccines target the original coronavirus strain as well as omicron mutations, specifically variants from BA.4 and BA.5 lineages.

Based on the data available, these new vaccines may offer reduced protection but still have the ability to safeguard against a severe infection, according to the WHO.

A recent study found that the updated booster shots generate a weaker response against the newer subvariants, as I previously reported for the Deseret News.

What is RSV?
Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a common virus that usually peaks during wintertime and mimics the symptoms of cold, as I reported for the Deseret News.

But for younger children or older adults, RSV can lead to bronchiolitis or pneumonia. There is no vaccine for it.

“What we’re seeing this year is the consequences of having two respiratory viral seasons in a row where we had very, very low rates of RSV and influenza. So the partial immunity has waned tremendously,” Dr. Brandon Webb, an associate professor of infectious diseases with Intermountain Healthcare, told the Deseret News. “Many, many people who had been exposed, or had some partial immunity in years past don’t have that anymore.”

What to know about flu season
This year, flu also proved to burden hospitals with uncharacteristically high number of cases.

“Not only is flu early, it also looks very severe,” said William Schaffner, medical director for the nonprofit National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and a professor of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, earlier in October, per The Washington Post.

Flu “can spread from respiratory droplets, aerosols and through contaminated surfaces,” per Yale Medicine.

Getting a flu shot is highly recommended, said Dr. Thomas Murray, a Yale Medicine pediatric infectious diseases physician.

But most important of all, if you develop any symptoms, don’t congregate with others, said Murray, adding: “But if you insist, wear a mask and segregate yourself during activities such as eating, when you can’t be masked.”

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