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Masks urged as pre-holiday ‘tripledemic’ of flu, Covid and RSV races through US

Nearly 10% of weekly deaths as of Dec. 1 were attributed to pneumonia, the flu or Covid-19. And that was with Thanksgiving barely in the rear view.

(CN) — As the holidays near and health care facilities grapple with a "tripledemic" of viral respiratory infections, people are being urged to consider donning masks and calling out sick.

“Help protect the ones you love the most, which include the oldest and the youngest in our community,” said Keri Althoff, associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Consider masking, spacing and increasing hand washing, particularly when you’re in indoor public spaces.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracked seasonal spikes in influenza, Sars-CoV-2 — the virus that causes Covid-19 — and respiratory syncytial virus or RSV, three viruses that cause respiratory illness and can be fatal to very young, elderly and immunocompromised groups.

As of Dec. 1, nearly 10% of weekly deaths were attributed to pneumonia, the flu or Covid-19, well above the epidemic threshold of 6.4% established by the National Center for Health Statistics.

So far this season, the CDC has tracked 8.7 million cases of the flu, including 78,000 hospitalizations. The 4,500 flu deaths in 2022 include 14 pediatric cases. Not only is the seasonal spike in flu cases earlier this year than usual, researchers say case rates are the highest they’ve been since the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.

The H1N1 virus infected 60.8 million people over the course of a year, causing 274,304 hospitalizations and 12,469 deaths.

The CDC additionally tracked 303,000 newly reported cases of Covid-19 last week, of which 29,433 are currently hospitalized nationwide. While deaths from Covid-19 remain on a decline, hospitalizations steadily increased over the last four weeks. To date, the CDC has tracked more than 98 million cases of Covid-19 and 1 million deaths.

On average, RSV sends 2.1 million children under 5 to the doctor's office, leading to 58,000 to 80,000 hospitalizations and an average of 200 deaths. Roughly 60,000 to 120,000 adults 65 and older are hospitalized with RSV each year, of which between 6,000 and 10,000 die.

Although RSV causes mild cold-like symptoms in most people, infections can be worse for infants and the elderly with more severe conditions like bronchiolitis and pneumonia.

“It should make no difference whether you test positive or negative for Covid-19 or the flu,” said virologist Andy Pekosz, co-director at the Johns Hopkins Center of Excellence for Influenza Research and Response. “If you’re feeling sick, stay home and take care of yourself. If you’re in a high-risk group, go seek medical care.”

Perkosz urged the public to maintain up-to-date vaccines, including the flu shot and the bivalent booster against Covid-19.

“Viruses always mutate, so it’s unlikely we’ll ever be in a situation where we have a perfect match between the virus and the vaccine, but that’s not a reason to avoid getting the vaccine," Pekosz said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Thursday expanded approval for the bivalent boosters produced by Moderna and Pfizer to children as young as six months of age.

“As this virus has changed, and immunity from previous Covid-19 vaccination wanes, the more people who keep up to date on Covid-19 vaccinations, the more benefit there will be for individuals, families and public health by helping prevent severe illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths," FDA Commissioner Robert Califf said in a statement.

Whether people can gather for the 2022 holidays and not start off 2023 with a spike in infectious diseases remains to be seen. Althoff encouraged individuals to take common-sense actions, including staying home when sick.

“As hard as it may be, normalize last-minute holiday cancellations if necessary,” Althoff said. “We’ve endured three long winters with Covid-19 and these common-sense approaches can be impactful for reducing the likelihood that any of these viruses enters your home.”

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