Holidays bring concern over trio of respiratory illnesses: COVID, flu, RSV

SPRINGFIELD — The good news is that Thanksgiving hasn’t brought a side dish of COVID-19 with the filling, but the bad news is that people still need to be cautious as a trio of contagious respiratory illnesses spread across the region.

“COVID-19 cases remain flat,” said Dr. Armando Paez, chief of infectious diseases at Baystate Medical Center. “We were afraid there would be a spike with Thanksgiving, but the positivity rate is about the same as it was before the holidays.”

As of Wednesday, the four hospitals operated by Baystate Health have admitted a total of 99 patients suffering from COVID-19, four of whom are being treated in the intensive care unit. However, Paez said about 65% have been vaccinated and have mild cases but have tested positive for the disease when admitted for other reasons.

While the number of infected people has been going up and down, the average number of patients with COVID-19 at Baystate Health has averaged between 80 and 90 for the past few months. Many who are admitted solely with COVID-19 have other pre-existing conditions that are affecting them make vulnerable, he said.

But people are not clear. Cases of the flu have increased, and respiratory syncytial virus, a lesser-known but common virus also known as RSV that usually causes a mild cold in adults, is a problem in very young children, Paez said.

And of course there is the common cold.

“The immunity level of the population is not the same,” Paez said. After nearly two years of avoiding large gatherings, wearing masks and social distancing to avoid contracting COVID-19, which can be deadly, especially before vaccines were available, people’s immune systems are more vulnerable to colds and flu.

RSV is not usually a problem except in children under the age of 2 because their immune systems are immature. Cases now appear to be declining locally, but as of Wednesday, half a dozen children were in Baystate Health’s pediatric intensive care units.

However, flu cases are on the rise. The good news is that this year’s vaccine dose is “a good match” to tackle widespread strains of the virus. This year, the vaccine is about 65% effective, while other years the rate at blocking the virus can be as low as 10%, Paez said.

Unlike Christmas 2020, when people celebrated the holiday alone or with a few friends or relatives, this year it is not necessary as long as people take some precautions, he said.

“You have to know the risk and take responsibility,” said Paez.

Probably the number one rule is that sick people should stay at home and wear a mask if they have to be in public to prevent the spread of the disease.

People should also make sure they are up to date on their COVID-19 and flu vaccines. While doctors usually advise people to get the flu shot in October, there’s really no reason why it can’t be given now and it takes 10 to 14 days to take effect so there’s plenty of time until Christmas , he said.

The same precautions that people have been taking since 2020 to avoid the spread of COVID-19 continue to apply. Everyone should remember to follow proper cough etiquette, and frequent handwashing is vital to controlling the spread of the disease, he said.

Paez also recommended people wear a mask when traveling on a bus or plane and when inside in a crowded space. “This is particularly important in households with vulnerable people,” he said.

People can also test for COVID-19 before going to an event, but Paez said they should remember it’s not a perfect test and doesn’t always detect the virus, especially in people who don’t have symptoms. It obviously doesn’t detect the flu or RSV.

One of the lessons everyone has learned during the COVID pandemic is that ventilation is also important, Paez said.

Outdoor events are better than indoor events when it comes to preventing the spread of disease. It also helps to open a window when everyone is gathered indoors to improve air circulation, he said.

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