Baffoe-Bonnie: Plan for a normal holiday
Anthony W. Baffoe-Bonnie, M.D., is the section chief of infectious diseases service and the medical director of the Infection Prevention and Control department at Carilion Clinic. He trained at the University of Ghana Medical School and was an Infectious Disease Fellow for Virginia Tech Carilion’s Fellowship Program. He has been a Carilion physician for over a decade.
It’s always good to have a plan. If you are planning a holiday road trip, you’ll have worked out your itinerary, put a full tank of gas in the car, thrown in a couple of water bottles and locked in the destination on your smartphone. Planning also can help you stay healthy as cold weather and indoor gatherings bring with them renewed concerns for a resurgence of respiratory illness.
My intent here is not to stress you out as we enter a third consecutive holiday season of COVID, coupled with indications of a significant wave of seasonal flu and RSV. We’re all tired of pandemic life and want a return to normal — to just get on with our lives. And we can do that if we just follow some basics key to keeping these respiratory viruses at bay.
First of all, if you’re gathering with family, encourage all your family members to be up to date on their COVID and influenza vaccines before you spend extended time gathered indoors. It will reduce the risk of virus transmission and especially reduce the risk of severe illness and hospitalization.
Second, if you develop respiratory or flu-like symptoms (fever, cough, runny nose, chills, body aches, fever, sore throat, etc.), or test positive for COVID or flu, skip the gathering. Quickly get tested for COVID or the flu if you have not already, especially if you are at higher risk of severe illness because of age, a chronic medical condition or you are immunocompromised. There are a number of effective treatments for individuals who fall ill if caught early on. At-home COVID tests are readily available. If you think it may be the flu, go to an urgent care center, your primary care physician, or other medical professional to get tested for influenza so you can be treated properly. Planning ahead will help you anticipate where you would go and to whom you would talk if you do get COVID, RSV, or flu-like symptoms.
Yes, we’re all tired of taking precautions, but they still have a role to play. There’s a reason why influenza and RSV surges are more aggressive this year. The preventive measures taken during the pandemic — hand washing, social distancing, avoiding large groups, masking when in public, etc., — also interrupted the normal spread of the flu and RSV. As a result, in the past few years we had very mild rounds of these seasonal respiratory infections.
While that was good news then, it also means that not everybody had a chance to develop antibodies to ward off the flu and RSV, which has resulted in more people being more susceptible to becoming infected and, in some cases, developing a more serious illness.
While RSV is typically more severe in children under 6 months and more prevalent among children 6 years of age or younger, it can exacerbate underlying heart or lung conditions in adults 65 or older if they contract RSV. (Another reason why taking preventive measures around older adults, young children and in crowded indoor conditions makes sense.)
If Europe is an indicator, and it has been in the past, as we go indoors there will be an uptick in COVID. And the indicators point to an increase in COVID cases here as temperatures grow colder. But that is not a reason to get stressed out about another wave of sickness, hospitalization, and death. In the U.S., we have widely available testing, vaccines that continue to be effective, and a variety of treatments. You may still get infected but getting infected is less likely to cause severe illness or hospitalization if you are vaccinated and seek early treatment. Catching a respiratory infection and doing nothing about it could have serious consequences, and so could not taking precautions to make sure you avoid the flu, RSV, and COVID.