Winter officially begins Thursday, and with the cold season comes an expected increase in flu and Covid rates, said Dr. Maddy Cohen, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The US is seeing a “sharp increase” in flu levels right now, particularly in the South, Cohen said Wednesday in an interview. Cases of Covid also appear to be increasing nationally, he said, while cases of respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, appear to have peaked this season.
“We’re seeing the peak of RSV a little earlier, but we don’t think we’re anywhere near the peak of flu or Covid yet,” Cohen said.
As of December 9, the weekly number of positive RSV tests in the US it was down about 16% compared to the previous week.
The pattern is different from last year, Cohen said, when the three viruses “seemed to peak at the same time.”
After an early start in October 2022, flu infection rates done in late November and early December. RSV infections peaked similarly in November, even though rates typically peak in the winter.
ONE dramatic increase in severe RSV disease overwhelmed children’s hospitals last year, likely because many babies born during the pandemic were not exposed to RSV in the first year or two of life because of coverage and social distancing.
But this year, Cohen said, “we’re not generally seeing strains in our pediatric hospitals, so we think this is a more typical season of RSV.”
Covid infections also seem similar this season compared to last, he added.
“Covid is causing the most hospitalizations and deaths of any virus, but it doesn’t appear to be any more severe than what we saw last year at this time, which is good news,” Cohen said.
However, the JN.1 variant — which explains about 21% of Covid cases nationwide — could accelerate the spread of the virus. Cohen said the strain appears to be more contagious than other circulating strains, though vaccines should provide good protection.
“That’s exactly why we want people to get the updated Covid vaccine, because it matches the changes we’re seeing in the virus,” he said.
The The CDC sent out an alert Last week warning health care providers about low vaccination rates for Covid, flu and RSV.
About 18% of adults and 8% of children aged 6 months and over have received updated Covid vaccines, which have been available since September and target a variant called XBB.1.5. ONE preprint study that has not been peer-reviewed suggests that the updated mRNA vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer also enhance antibody protection against JN.1.
This year’s flu vaccine, likewise, appears to be a match for circulating strains: It reduced the risk of hospitalization by 52% in the southern hemisphere, according to CDC report.
Cohen said she made sure her own children, ages 9 and 11, got their Covid and flu shots.
RSV vaccines, meanwhile, are new this year and only two groups — pregnant women and adults aged 60 and over – eligible. The virus is typically mild in young, healthy adults, but babies under 6 months are particularly vulnerable to serious effects, so the vaccine for pregnant women is intended to transfer antibodies through the placenta.
Just 17% of older adults had gotten RSV shots as of Dec. 9, according to the CDC. No data are available for pregnant women, some of whom have reported issues covered by insurance the finding it through pharmacies or doctor’s offices.
The FDA has also approved an injectable RSV drug for infants called nirsevimab, but the CDC reported a lack of supply in October. The companies behind the drug made available 77,000 extra doses in November and 230,000 more expected to be available in January.
When it comes to holiday travel and gatherings, Cohen said people should consider not only the risk of infection, but also the risks to those they’ll be celebrating with.
“Will you be going to Christmas with the grandparents? Will you be around colleagues battling cancer?” he said. “Make sure that you as a person are not only thinking about yourself, but also about who you are around.”