Mark J. Terrill/AP
This year’s holiday season comes amid an unwelcome “triple epidemic” of COVID-19, flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) that have helped put pressure on hospitals across the country.
While the number of COVID cases is much lower than last winter, cases are rising nationwide and nearly 3,000 Americans are dying each week. Meanwhile, other respiratory viruses such as the flu and RSV have taken a big hit this fall.
More than 77% of hospital beds across the country are occupied, up from nearly 80% earlier this month, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services – the highest level since last winter’s Omicron surge.
NPR asked a handful of public health experts how Americans should approach the holiday season. They suggest that Americans assess the risk and take appropriate safety measures to protect themselves and those most likely to face serious illness, including the elderly and the immunocompromised.
“Everyone is apparently ready to do as much of what they’ve been doing during normal holiday periods, especially since many of us have given up for a few years,” says Dr. Henry Wu, an epidemiologist and travel physician at Emory University. . “We are entering a new normal where we need to navigate how best to do what we want to do.”
Think about your vacation plans and set your security measures accordingly
Now is the time to look ahead and think about what plans you have for the holiday season, Wu said. Which events have the highest priority for you? Who do you want to see?
Then do a risk analysis. Think about how much you’re willing to risk getting sick – and the same for the people you plan to see. Are you a healthy young adult and do you have a small get-together with other healthy young adults? Or are you going to a large multi-generational family reunion with children and the elderly together in the same house?
Thinking about these questions can help you decide what safety precautions to take. “Each family and individual is going to be a little bit different,” Wu said.
Some people feel completely comfortable sitting together in a bar. Others, not so much. “If you want to do as much as you can to avoid getting sick when you get together, if you want to protect the vulnerable person, whether it’s an elderly person or a baby, be sure to take some of the lessons from the past few years,” he said, including limiting your exposure before you travel and testing for COVID before you leave.
Get the flu shot and a COVID booster if you haven’t already
All the public health experts who spoke to NPR agreed on this easy way to reduce the risk to you and those around you: Get your shots!
The bivalent COVID-19 booster shots made by Pfizer and Moderna are available to almost all Americans, including most children. And for those who need or prefer a non-mRNA shot, the Novavax vaccine is available as a booster for adults who completed an initial course of vaccination at least six months ago.
Flu shots are also important. The CDC estimates that at least 13 million Americans have already been infected with the flu this season and more than 100,000 have been hospitalized — a caseload much larger than last winter, when many Americans were still following COVID-related precautions.
But the take-up of flu shots this year was low. According to the CDC, only about a quarter of American adults have been vaccinated. Those who haven’t gotten their shot yet should get one soon, said Dr. Preeti Malani, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Michigan.
“The feeling is that this year’s vaccine is actually a pretty good match for the circulating strain. And like COVID vaccines, flu shots don’t prevent all infections, but they can help prevent hospitalizations, deaths and transmission,” Malani said in an interview last week with NPR.
If you don’t feel well, stay home
This was the other easy source of agreement. “If you have symptoms, if you’re feeling unwell, we’re going to ask you to stay home. We’re saying we don’t really want people to congregate if they’re feeling unwell,” CDC chief Rochelle Walensky said in an interview with NPR. week.
A scientific review of 130 COVID studies conducted by mid-2021, published earlier this year in the journal PLOS medicinesuggests that the risk of becoming infected by someone who is asymptomatic is much lower than by someone with symptoms.
That makes staying home when you’re sick “one of the most important things we can do this holiday season to keep other people safe,” said Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco. “That means not going to that holiday party when you cough and sneeze.”
If you feel sick, get tested – COVID tests are widely available at pharmacies and supermarkets this year. And health care providers can arrange a flu test.
“If you’re diagnosed early, we have antiviral drugs that can be used to shorten your disease course and the severity of your illness,” Walensky said.
Move some activities outdoors and maximize indoor ventilation where possible
“I consider ventilation to be one of the strongest things we can do to protect ourselves during the season of respiratory pathogens,” Gandhi said.
Respiratory diseases like COVID have a hard time spreading outdoors, where natural airflow is remarkably effective at dispersing droplets and pathogens.
Not everything can realistically be moved outside. Many social gatherings and religious services will take place indoors. For family members who travel long distances to see each other, it is inevitable to spend a lot of time indoors together.
For more flexible plans, such as catching up with an old friend from high school, consider outdoor activities if the weather permits, such as a walk in the park, ice skating, or a stroll through an outdoor holiday market, rather than gathering at a bar or restaurant. restaurant.
For indoor gatherings, Gandhi suggests doing what you can to improve ventilation. Open windows if weather permits. If not, HEPA filters, cracked windows, and ceiling fans can also help.
“I think this has really emerged as the strongest nonpharmaceutical intervention that’s been revealed during this pandemic because it just eliminates all of the respiratory pathogens,” she said.
Consider wearing a high-quality mask in crowded environments, especially if you are a vulnerable person
Time indoors in public can be unavoidable during the holidays, such as during travel and religious services. CDC health officials, along with some municipalities, are encouraging people to wear “high-quality, well-fitting” masks in public whenever possible — especially those who are more vulnerable, such as the elderly and the immunocompromised.
“Especially in crowded indoor spaces, whether it’s on the subway or on a plane, a lot of people are sick around us right now. So put that mask on,” Malani said.
Studies are mixed on the effectiveness of masks on a large scale.
But in laboratory settings, masks such as N95s or KN95s have been shown to block virus particles. Wearing one of these high-quality masks can reduce your risk of becoming infected around others who don’t wear masks, although of course they are not foolproof.
“I don’t think a mask is hard to do,” Wu said. “I really encourage people to keep that mask handy and use it” when you’re in a crowded and poorly ventilated indoor area.