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

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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 could spread further after New Year’s Eve parties and celebrations, 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, told CNN on Monday.

“These are highly contagious viruses – and people have generally left Covid-19 and Covid vaccinations behind. They haven’t been as aware of the flu. They are not wearing masks,” Schaffner said. “And if you’re around other people, it’s an opportunity for all three of these viruses – flu, Covid and even RSV – to spread from one person to another. Therefore, we expect a post-holiday increase in these viruses.”

At the same time, across the country, there has been a wave of flight cancellations and families stranded at the airport while traveling on vacation.

When that happens, “people are together for very long periods of time and they’re not wearing masks, they’re tired, they’re tired and they’re 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. He recommends masking up at the airport and on the plane.

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

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

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

Flu also increased after Thanksgiving, with more than a third of all hospitalizations and deaths from flu around this season being reported in the first full week of data after Thanksgiving, and cases also increased. almost as much.

Currently, seasonal flu activity remains high in the US but continues to decline in most parts of the country, according to data published Friday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Despite the improvements, the flu may not have peaked yet.

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 for the current state of Covid-19, the increases appear to be relatively light. Hospitalizations are increasing in most states, although the overall rate is still just a fraction of what it was during other outbreaks. New hospital admissions increased by nearly 50% last month. Hospitalizations among seniors are peaking in the Delta’s rise – and rising fast.

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

“Air travel has also returned to pre-pandemic levels and there are no longer restrictions on wearing masks on planes or at 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 stabilizing and becoming less part of the triple threat of COVID, flu and RSV.”

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

“We are focusing on these three, but there are others out there – the common cold and others,” Benjamin said.

Overall, “we should expect more respiratory illness,” he said. “The best way to reduce the risk is obviously to get fully vaccinated for those we have a vaccine for, so influenza and Covid, with the new bivalent version, are the two most important right now.”

Benjamin added that it’s also important to wash your hands frequently, wear a mask while traveling on vacation, and stay home when you’re sick.