Health experts urge travelers to mask, get vaccinated and isolate if sick

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As Covid numbers eased slightly across the region in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, Holy Cross Health hospitals in Maryland are still full.

Very sick children and older adults with other respiratory illnesses, which recovered earlier and faster than expected this fall, are packing beds again, after nearly three years of heavy precautions and suspended social interactions during the holiday season. are disrupting the plan to celebrate.

“It’s looked incredible over the past three years,” said Ann Burke, vice president of medical affairs for Holy Cross Health in the Maryland area.

The COVID-19 pandemic put an end to holiday plans in 2020 and 2021. While the coronavirus remains a serious concern, this year two other common respiratory viruses, influenza and RSV, are wreaking havoc — especially in the DMV, which is one of the areas with the highest flu activity in the country.

Ahead of Thanksgiving gatherings, doctors like Burke are urging people to take precautions in crowded public places and on airplanes by wearing masks, covering coughs and sneezes, washing hands, and getting flu shots and Covid booster doses Behave

“Wash your hands and get your shot,” Burke said. “Try to help us.”

Burke also offered a warning for families with newborns, who are especially vulnerable to devastating consequences from RSV: “I strongly recommend that families with newborns limit the number of visitors in their home. I know that’s a really unpopular statement.”

As RSV and influenza skyrocket, Covid has reached a plateau.

The District and Maryland are reporting similar levels of new cases to last year around this time, and Virginia’s weekly new cases are down slightly from last year. But cases began to rise rapidly around Thanksgiving when Omicron emerged and created a record-setting spike in cases. According to epidemiologists and virologists who are monitoring the ongoing Covid-19 variant, so far, the signs point to a much milder wave of Covid cases this winter.

CDC warns of severe winter as flu, RSV and COVID collide

With vaccines now widely available for all age groups and 68.7 percent of Americans through the primary coronavirus vaccine series, the public health precautions that were previously necessary are now mere recommendations. Local officials have dropped mask mandates and testing requirements. Most school districts have cracked down on strict masking rules and ramped up complex testing and quarantining programs.

Vulnerable populations also have access to highly effective antiviral treatments, such as Pfizer’s Paxlovid, which was not yet authorized by the Food and Drug Administration.

Still, few Americans have received an updated bivalent booster shot and the strain on the health care infrastructure remains.

“We still have approximately 400 individuals who are hospitalized with COVID,” said Jinleen Chan, deputy secretary of public health services for the Maryland Department of Health. “It hasn’t gone away.”

Chen said people can safeguard their holiday plans and protect their loved ones by taking precautions ahead of indoor gatherings. Wearing a mask in crowded public places, washing hands, and staying home if you feel sick in the days leading up to holiday festivities can prevent all three respiratory infections from spreading to other people.

“Getting the flu and COVID shots is important,” she said.

Already, the District, Maryland and Virginia are among 16 US jurisdictions the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say are experiencing “very high” rates of influenza-like illness, the most severe and Early – The start of the flu season since the 2009 swine flu pandemic. And a spike in RSV has caused more sick children to be accommodated in local pediatric intensive care units.

“It’s too early for us to see a lot of influenza,” said Andy Pekoz, a virologist, professor and vice-chair of the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. It is the same story for the RSV as well, he said. The early and rapid rise in cases could be a sign that these respiratory viruses will run rampant this fall and winter, leading to a severe and prolonged season for illnesses that could be fatal to some vulnerable populations .

“This is the worst-case scenario — it’s getting stronger and will last longer,” Pekoz said.

According to the CDC, RSV leads to 6,000 to 10,000 deaths in children under the age of 5 and 65 to 100 to 300 in adults each year. Pekoz said between 2010 and 2020, between 2010 and 2020, between 12,000 and 52,000 people died annually from influenza.

Children and adults who get RSV typically experience cold-like symptoms including runny nose and sneezing, but in severe cases fever, wheezing, and even the need for ventilation to maintain oxygen levels. Might be possible. Flu usually brings fever, chills, body aches, cough, runny nose, sore throat, headache, and fatigue.

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In the week ending November 12, Maryland reported 5,144 positive influenza tests and Virginia reported 2,607. There were 593 confirmed cases of influenza in the district. Rates of flu-like illness throughout the DMV are already at or higher than the typical peaks seen much later in flu season, between late January and March.

It remains to be seen whether cases will continue to rise, but epidemiologists say the very mild flu season of 2020 and 2021 may have left large sections of the population with little immunity against the virus.

James Bridgers, Montgomery County’s acting health officer, said travelers leaving the DMV and returning after Thanksgiving should be tested for respiratory virus levels at their vacation spots.

“If you are traveling outside the DMV check with the local health department and be mindful of any respiratory illnesses you may be carrying,” he said. This is especially true for people moving south or to states such as California, Colorado and Texas, where influenza and RSV have spread faster and much earlier this year than doctors and epidemiologists anticipated.

In Virginia, hospital and urgent care visits for RSV and flu-like illness have nearly quadrupled in recent weeks, said Laurie Forlano, deputy state epidemiologist. Those numbers could keep climbing as people increasingly gather indoors as temperatures cool and the holidays approach. The coronavirus, which has increased only slightly in Virginia in the past week, could spread even further.

“I think it’s too early to tell where it will go when the weather gets colder,” Forlano said. “We are more in or around other people and that can help transfer these viruses from person to person.”

Even as winter approaches, some jurisdictions such as Arlington County have implemented plans to scale back coronavirus testing and county-sponsored vaccination clinics as demand has waned in recent months. Arlington announced that its testing kiosks would close by the end of November, and its county-run vaccine clinic would close permanently on December 17. Health website.

Forlano said the closure of these public resources is part of a transition toward treatments for other diseases like the coronavirus — including influenza — that are routinely treated through doctor’s offices and pharmacies. He said people will still be able to access vaccines, boosters and rapid tests at pharmacies and get PCR tests from health care providers.

“The good news is that we are in a very different place today than we were … two years ago with COVID-19,” she said. “We have plans in place should more testing become necessary, but I am pleased that we have a very different and more robust landscape for both testing and vaccines at this time.”

Bridgers said Montgomery County, MD, has not yet begun closing coronavirus testing and vaccination centers — but the county may consider doing so in January as the holiday season approaches. He said Maryland’s most populous county expects to see continued demand for tests, vaccines and boosters through the end of the year. Bridgers said that in the week ending Nov. 13, more than 900 people in Montgomery received COVID vaccines, including more than 200 administered at county-operated sites, and the county conducted more than 900 COVID tests.

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“We’re urging people as we head into the holiday season to make sure they’re up to date on their vaccinations,” Bridgers said, “and to get tested for COVID-19 before gathering with family and friends.” .

Pekoz agrees that getting a coronavirus test before gathering for Thanksgiving dinner is a smart idea, but cautioned that a single rapid test doesn’t guarantee protection. Performing at least two tests over several days—called serial testing—will give more reliable results. But no rapid test is accurate, Pekoz said, and anyone who feels even the slightest bit unwell should stay home.

“People want to see their families,” he said. “Maybe they’ll ignore that scratchy throat or the sniffles or the fever that they have. But you can broadcast [these viruses] before you actually show symptoms. Even with the slightest hint of symptoms, people should be more tired.

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