By Ruth Bayang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
As the days grow shorter and temperatures begin to drop, infectious disease specialists like Dr. Helen Chu at the University of Washington (UW) School of Medicine, are gearing up for what promises to be a challenging fall and winter season.
They anticipate not one menacing virus but a trifecta of respiratory illnesses—respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), the flu, and the ongoing threat of COVID-19.
“We expect that we’ll see all three viruses circulating,” stated Chu, a professor of medicine in the Division of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“It’s unclear which one is going to peak first, but we expect all three of them to peak.”
One of the most concerning aspects of this convergence is the threat RSV poses, especially to young children. Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveals that each year, an estimated 58,000 to 80,000 children under the age of 5 are hospitalized due to RSV infection, with many of them being infants.
Dr. Chu highlights a significant development in the fight against RSV—the approval of a monoclonal antibody designed to protect the youngest members of society.
Read more about the monoclonal antibody treatment in this FDA news release.
“This monoclonal antibody is recommended for every single baby at birth, and for high-risk babies in their second year of life,” she said.
On a different note, there is hopeful news on the horizon for expectant mothers. A vaccine designed to be administered during pregnancy, with the aim of preventing RSV infections in infants is awaiting consideration by the CDC.
The complex interplay between RSV, flu, and COVID-19 adds an additional layer of uncertainty. “We’ve already had a COVID surge in Washington state and nationally in August, which is earlier than we would normally expect for respiratory viruses,” Dr. Chu noted.
Identification of the specific virus causing illness remains crucial for effective treatment.
“You can get Paxlovid for COVID and then you can get Tamiflu for flu,” said Dr. Chu. “If you’re a vulnerable person, or you’re a young child, there are certain people who meet criteria to be treated for all of these things. And the earlier you know, the better the treatments work.”
Respiratory Illness Data Dashboard
The Washington State Department of Health (DOH) created a new Respiratory Illness Data Dashboard that allows people to track COVID-19, flu, and RSV activity by region across the state.
The new comprehensive dashboard replaces DOH’s COVID-19 Data Dashboard.
“We hope the new Respiratory Illness Data Dashboard will inform communities and help guide their personal decision-making on prevention measures such as masks and social distancing,” said Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett, MD, MPH, Chief Science Officer at DOH.
The Respiratory Illness Data Dashboard will be updated weekly through April 2024.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, distinguishing between a common cold, the flu, or strep throat wasn’t always a top priority. Many simply powered through their illnesses, expecting to feel better in a few days, or they went to see their doctor.
Now, at-home COVID-19 test kits have become household staples, and people have become proficient at using them. Notably, self-testing reduces the risk of virus transmission.
But what about tests for the seasonal flu and RSV?
For the flu, there is currently only one FDA-authorized at-home test—Lucira, now owned by Pfizer, which offers a combined flu and COVID-19 molecular test.
This kit employs a PCR-related method to amplify and identify viral genes in a sample, delivering results in approximately 30 minutes.
In the coming months, eMed, a digital health company, plans to offer a similar kit. Another test kit, currently under FDA review, may soon be available for both flu and COVID-19 testing.
At-home tests for RSV are not yet available, primarily because this virus poses a significant risk mainly to infants and the elderly. RSV tests are typically performed in doctors’ offices, hospitals, and urgent care centers, with results available in about 30 minutes.
Prevention is still the best medicine
When addressing concerns that have been raised about the safety of receiving multiple vaccines simultaneously, Dr. Chu confirmed that it is safe.
“There have been a lot of studies showing that you can get them at the same time, one in each arm. So that’s what I would recommend doing, to minimize the side effects, to just get it done and get through all your side effects in the same two-day period.”
The CDC has released a respiratory virus season outlook, predicting a season similar to the previous year in terms of hospitalizations. However, the emergence of new COVID variants could alter this projection, emphasizing the importance of vaccination.
“Getting up to date on vaccinations and staying home when you’re sick can also help protect you and those around you against the worst impacts of COVID-19, flu, and RSV,” said Kwan-Gett.
“We all need to do our part to reduce the chance that our healthcare system could be overwhelmed by respiratory illnesses in the coming months.”
Made possible in part by the Washington State Department of Health through a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This information does not necessarily reflect the official policies of the Washington State Department of Health or the Department of Health and Human Services.