Respiratory Season

How healthcare providers and the population at large have fared this fall and winter.

February 2024 – The Journal of Healthcare Contracting

CDC respiratory disease season outlook

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have been continuing to monitor statistics and data during respiratory season, for signs that respiratory disease season could be worse than expected. The CDC tracks numerous factors in relation to respiratory disease, including data indicating the possibility of an unusually severe influenza season, multiple respiratory disease peaks happening at the same time, or the emergence of a new coronavirus variant that causes severe illness.

As of mid-January, the CDC continued to expect that the 2024 respiratory season will likely have a similar number of total hospitalizations as last year. In 2023/2022, the number of hospitalizations remained higher than previous respiratory seasons prior to COVID-19 pandemic. With the incidence of widespread illness and healthcare system strain, this year’s hospitalizations from COVID-19, flu, and RSV may even be higher.

According to the CDC, vaccination is best way to protect yourself against severe disease. Vaccination is especially important for people who are at higher risk of developing serious complications.

Getting COVID-19 and flu vaccines at the same time is safe

As the respiratory season reaches its peak, the CDC recommends that everyone five years and older receive one dose of the “updated vaccine.” A person who has never received a COVID-19 vaccine in the past can still get the protective benefit of the one updated shot, according to the CDC.

According to UCLA Health, it is safe and convenient for an individual to get both the flu and COVID vaccine at the same time. With COVID and flu seasons both currently underway, it is more important than ever to get vaccinated. The vaccines both lower an individual’s risk of getting sick and protects against severe disease.

Respiratory illness and coinfection risk

The 2023/2024 respiratory season has looked much different this year than in the past. COVID-19, the flu, and RSV numbers have continued to rise across the United States. Last winter, flu and RSV infections were already declining by the time hospitalizations from the omicron virus started to spike in December 2022. With the high number of respiratory illnesses circulating, how worried should an individual be about getting multiple at the same time, or coinfection?

Fortunately, while it is possible to be infected with multiple viruses at the same time, the risk isn’t the same for everyone, according to a report from NPR. Viral interference, a phenomenon where infection with one virus ramps up the body’s immune system, can make it less likely to get infected with another virus. According to an NBC News article, while respiratory disease is on the rise, physicians are not seeing notably increased rates of patients with both the flu and COVID.

Cases of new COVID-19 variant tick up

It has been nearly four years since the pandemic emerged, and the winter respiratory season has brought on a new variant of the disease. There has been an increase nationally in emergency room visits and hospitalizations for COVID-19, the flu, and RSV, which began mid- December and has been continuing throughout early 2024, according to KFF Health News.

The newest variant circulating is known as JN.1, a descendant of omicron. It is rapidly spreading, and represents between 39% to half of the cases, according to stats from the CDC. Fortunately, the variant “does not appear to pose additional risks to public health beyond that of other recent variants,” according to the CDC. New hospitalizations from COVID-19 are about one-third of what they were around the 2022 holidays. Weekly deaths dropped slightly at the end of 2023, and are also substantially below levels from a year ago.

Symptoms of the COVID variants currently circulating are likely familiar, including a runny nose, sore throat, cough, fatigue, fever, and muscle aches. If you feel sick, the CDC recommends staying home, resting, and testing for COVID-19.

Pediatric cases of RSV lead to more hospitalizations than omicron, flu

This year’s respiratory season has seen increased cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) nationally. Young children are at an increased risk for developing severe cases of RSV. According to a study published in late 2023 in The Journal of The American Medical Association (JAMA), pediatric cases of respiratory syncytial virus have led to more emergency hospitalizations than the omicron variant of COVID-19 and the flu.

JAMA researchers analyzed data from over 500,000 patients (under 18) who were hospitalized with the virus between August 2021 and September 2022. It was found that the hospitalization rate for children who tested positive for RSV was 81.7% while the rate was 31.5% for omicron and 27.7% for the flu. RSV is a common respiratory virus that causes mild, cold-like symptoms, according to the CDC, but can progress to severe and fatal in infants and older adults. Parents should take precautions to prevent severe illness in children, including RSV vaccination, keeping children home when sick, washing hands often, and encouraging kids to cover coughs and sneezes.

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