Flu, RSV and COVID-19 are creating a perfect storm of respiratory disease that is overwhelming the nation's health care systems.
Vaccination will be key to getting through the winter holidays with your health intact, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a media briefing Monday.
"For two of the three viruses discussed today, there are vaccines," Walensky said. "Both the updated COVID-19 vaccines and this year's flu vaccines were formulated to protect against the viruses that are currently circulating right now."
This year's flu vaccine appears to be well-targeted to prevent illness, said Dr. Sandra Fryhofer, board chair of the American Medical Association. This is National Influenza Vaccination Week.
"This year's flu vaccine formulation seems to be a good match to circulating viruses," Fryhofer said during the CDC briefing. "It takes two weeks to build up protective antibodies, which is another reason to go ahead and get vaccinated now."
Data is also showing that the updated COVID booster is effective against the newer omicron strains, Walensky added.
"Early surveillance shows that people who received their updated COVID-19 vaccine this year were nearly 15 times less likely to die from COVID-19, compared to people who were not vaccinated, and were also less likely to die than those who were vaccinated but had not received an updated COVID-19 vaccine," Walensky said.
Unfortunately, not enough people are taking advantage of this protection.
"Concerningly, for some of these higher risk groups like children, adults over 65 and pregnant people, we are seeing lower rates of vaccination compared to this time last year," Walensky said.
Meanwhile, flu vaccination coverage is about 12% lower in pregnant women and 5% lower in children than it was last year, Walensky said.
Both influenza and RSV started their seasons early this year, as many people dropped pandemic protections like masking and social distancing, Fryhofer said.
"I'm also an internal medicine physician in Atlanta. I see patients in my office every day. And I can tell you firsthand this year's flu season is off to a rough start," Fryhofer said. "Flu's here, it started early, and with COVID and RSV also circulating, it's a perfect storm for a terrible holiday season."
Flu levels are high in 47 states and territories around the nation, up from 36 jurisdictions last week, Walensky noted.
So far this season, there have been 8.7 million cases of flu-like illness, 78,000 hospitalizations from flu and 4,500 deaths, Walensky said. Those include 14 children who have died from the flu.
COVID also is starting to rear its head, fueling a 15% to 20% increase in hospitalizations over the last week, Walensky said.
"In the past week, we have started to see the unfortunate and expected rise of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations nationally after the Thanksgiving holiday," Walensky said. "This rise in cases and hospitalizations is especially worrisome as we move into the winter months when more people are assembling indoors with less ventilation, and as we approach the holiday season where many are gathering with loved ones across multiple generations."
On the other hand, there are early signs that the RSV wave that hit children particularly hard might be abating in some parts of the country, Walensky said.
"We have seen signs that RSV may have peaked in some areas like the South and Southeast and may be leveling off in the mid-Atlantic, New England and Midwest," Walensky said. "While this is encouraging, respiratory viruses continue to spread at high levels nationwide. Even in areas where RSV may be decreasing, our hospital systems continue to be stretched with high numbers of patients with other respiratory illnesses."
Having three different respiratory viruses widely circulating is creating no small amount of chaos, Fryhofer said.
For example, people who get sick need to get tested so they'll know what they've got. They can't just assume it's a cold or the flu.
"There are specific antivirals for flu and specific antivirals for COVID, but flu antivirals don't work for COVID and vice versa, and the only way to know for sure what you have is to get tested," Fryhofer said. "It is going to be a confusing respiratory infection season. Figuring out what's making people sick is going to be a conundrum."
People should adopt protective strategies, particularly if they are at high risk for serious disease, the experts said. These include masking, washing hands and staying home if they've fallen ill.
"Please stay home when you're sick. Share your love by not sharing your sickness this holiday season," Fryhofer said.
Walensky made a point to recognize health care and public health workers during the briefing.
"The past several years have certainly not been easy, and we now face yet another surge of illness, another moment of overstretched capacity, and really one of tragic and often preventable sadness," Walensky said. "We could not be more thankful for the work you continue to do every single day to save lives."