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

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

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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.

Respiratory viruses are very likely to spread even more after holiday gatherings and New Year’s 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 shrugged off Covid-19 and Covid vaccination. They weren’t so careful about the flu. They don’t wear masks,” Schaffner said. “And if you’re around other people, it’s an opportunity for all three viruses — flu, Covid and even RSV — to spread from one person to another. So we expect a post-holiday spike in these viruses.”

At the same time, there was a wave of canceled flights and families stranded at the airport on their holiday trips across the country.

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

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

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

“After the Thanksgiving holiday period, we saw an increase in COVID cases of about 58% by the start of the Christmas holiday on December 21,” Freeman wrote. “Deaths from COVID have also increased over the same time period by about 65%.”

The flu also surged after Thanksgiving, with more than a third of all flu hospitalizations and deaths this season reported in the first full week of data after Thanksgiving, and cases jumped nearly as much.

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

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

As for the current state of Covid-19, the increases seem relatively slight. Hospitalizations are up in most states, though the overall rate is still a fraction of what it was during other spikes. New hospital admissions have jumped nearly 50% in the past month. Hospitalizations among the elderly are nearing their peak since the Delta Surge—and rising fast.

Freeman said reports after the winter holidays are expected to continue to show an increase in Covid-19 cases and deaths, likely due to increased travel around the country, large family gatherings, fewer people who have updated their vaccinations against Covid-19 and flu shots and fewer people are 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 in airports where viruses can easily circulate. Same for buses,” Freeman said. “Fortunately, we are seeing less RSV in children than our high points earlier in December, so respiratory illnesses are stabilizing and becoming less of a triple threat of COVID, flu and RSV.”

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

“We focus on those three, but there are others — the common cold and others,” Benjamin said.

Overall, “we should expect more respiratory disease,” he said. “The best way to reduce your risk, of course, is to get fully vaccinated for those for which we have a vaccine, so flu and Covid, with the new bivalent version, are the two most important at the moment.”

Benjamin added that it also remains important to wash your hands often, wear a mask during holiday travel and stay home when you are sick.

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