This time of year marks not only the winter holiday season, but also the winter virus season, which usually starts in October and peaks sometime in December or January, often with spikes after the major holidays when people attend large family gatherings and other indoor celebrations.
Last year, we had a “tripledemic” of simultaneous early-season surges in COVID-19, flu, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus). This year, things seem to be starting more slowly, but according to CDC director Dr. Mandy Cohen, quoted in the LA Times this week after testifying to Congress, “RSV season is in full swing. The flu season is just beginning across most of the country, though accelerating fast. And while we’re seeing relatively low levels of COVID, COVID is still the primary cause of new respiratory hospitalizations and deaths, with about 15,000 hospitalizations and about 1,000 deaths every single week.”
And the LA County Department of Public Health confirms that all three viruses are now on the rise again locally, too, though not yet at the levels of last year’s fast and furious triple whammy.
Also this year, we have several tools to help prevent infections and stay informed about local virus transmission – a new COVID-19 vaccine, a new RSV vaccine, and a new LA County “RespWatch” dashboard that tracks local progress of all three common respiratory viruses.
According to the LA County Public Health, in its announcement of the new RespWatch tracking tool, “This dashboard is updated weekly on Fridays and shares information on flu, COVID-19 and RSV, and allows residents to track information in one convenient location. The dashboard includes information on clinical laboratory surveillance, emergency department visits and wastewater concentrations in comparison to previous seasons,” all of which are metrics used by the county to track viral levels and transmissions.
The dashboard also provides information on COVID-related hospitalizations and deaths, a chart showing the breakdown of currently-circulating variants, and more, all on a single page at http://publichealth.lacounty.gov/acd/respwatch.
To help stay healthy throughout the winter virus season, LA County also recommends that everyone get an updated COVID-19 booster shot if you haven’t already done so. New vaccines, formulated to protect against currently circulating strains of the virus, were released in September and will provide added protection against this year’s variants, even if you’ve had all the previous COVID vaccines.
“To maximize protection,” says the County’s latest advisory, “get vaccinated at least 2 weeks before holiday gatherings. However, if you can’t get vaccinated during that time period, that’s ok. Plan to get the updated COVID-19 vaccine as soon as you can. Studies show that vaccination reduces your risk of long COVID and lowers your chances of severe illness, hospitalization and death, if you are infected.”
The updated vaccine is recommended for everyone 6 months and older and “even for people who feel they are in good health and don’t get sick often.”
“Getting vaccinated reduces your chances of a severe infection, spreading COVID to others who are vulnerable and long COVID,” says the Department.
Also, updated flu vaccines are important for the same reason, says LA County, and you can get your flu and COVID shots at the same time, so you don’t need to make two separate appointments.
And finally this year, a new RSV vaccine is available for the two biggest risk groups – those over 60 and very young children. While people in other age groups less often suffer serious illness from RSV, LA County says, “The CDC estimates that each year RSV causes between 58,000–80,000 hospitalizations among children younger than 5 years old and 6,000–10,000 deaths among adults 65 years and older.”
According to the health department, “All infants under the age of 6 months and some older children with underlying health conditions” should get the RSV vaccine, as should those over 60, and “people who are 32 through 36 weeks pregnant during September through January.”
Further Holiday Season Health Tips
Finally, besides getting the updated COVID-19, flu and RSV vaccines, LA County health officials urge people to take other common sense precautions to protect themselves and others during the winter virus season:
“Most importantly, stay home when you are sick. Don’t risk infecting others.
Cover coughs and sneezes so you don’t spread viruses to others. This is especially important if you are around people who are more vulnerable to severe illness from infection, such as older adults and people with weakened immune systems.
Wash your hands often to prevent picking up and transmitting viruses to others.
Wear a well-fitting mask in crowded indoor spaces.”
And if you do get sick, see the LA County Respiratory Viruses page, which has even more information on winter virus symptoms, when to seek care, and more.