Could holiday season drive a spike in flu and COVID cases?

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

Holiday gatherings typically mark the start of cold and flu season.

Unfortunately for Pennsylvanians, that season started already — and could accelerate as more people gather indoors without masks and, in some cases, without flu and COVID vaccines.

"We've had so much COVID that we kind of forgot about the flu," said Dr. John Goldman, a UPMC infectious disease specialist. We've had so much resistance to COVID vaccines that people aren't getting the flu vaccines that they need to get."

That's particularly concerning as Pennsylvania reports an unseasonably rapid onset of flu cases, leading the state's Department of Health to issue advisories. As of Thursday, the DOH had reported 479 cases of flu in York County versus 12,065 statewide. In a typical year, those are levels expected 10 weeks later — around New Year's Eve.

Pennsylvania has seen an unseasonably rapid onset of flu cases, leading the state's Department of Health to issue advisories.

COVID, meanwhile, is cruising along, infecting people at roughly the same pace it has for the last few months. The county reported 409 cases and five deaths according to state data, bringing its pandemic totals to 139,393 and 1,604 respectively. Hospital patients decreased to 27 with one in the ICU and none on ventilators.

All of this has led health experts to warn people to stay vigilant.

"If we want to keep people healthy when we all come together for Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner, we want to make sure that people wash their hands," Goldman said. "We want to make sure people get their vaccines."

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Even if things are mild with COVID, it's still around, Goldman said. And UPMC is seeing high levels of flu and RSV.

That could prove a problem for family gatherings, especially if young children give their elderly parents or grandparents the flu or COVID.

"The most important thing we can all do to reduce the likelihood of becoming severely ill is to be up to date with the COVID-19 vaccine, including the new bivalent boosters," WellSpan Health infectious disease physician Dr. Raghav Tirupathi said Thursday. "Note that it takes about two weeks to reach optimal protection from the vaccine, so it’s best not to wait until just before a gathering to get inoculated."

None of this is to say that people shouldn't go to Thanksgiving or Christmas or other holiday celebrations if they're healthy, Goldman said.

Licensed vocational nurse, Denise Saldana, left, vaccinates Pri DeSilva, Associate Director of Individual and Corporate Giving, with a fourth Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine booster at the Dr. Kenneth Williams Health Center in Los Angeles Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022.  (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

"Use common sense and do what you can do to prevent people from getting infected," he said, "and especially from having young kids infect older parents, older grandparents."

Other ways to prevent transmission of COVID, the flu and other respiratory diseases include good ventilation in places of gathering and eating as well as masking. In addition, Tirupathi recommended taking a COVID test on the day of gathering as close as possible to the event itself to reduce the chance of someone attending while infected. If someone is sick, they should not attend.

"Hand-washing is an extremely good idea," Goldman said. "The flu and RSV are frequently spread when someone coughs on their hands, touches another surface, touches another person and they end up contaminating that surface."

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CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician, suggested to CNN that if there are vulnerable people at gatherings, attendees should consider a "mini-quarantine" before attending.

 "For about 5 days prior to the gathering, everyone participating in the mini-quarantine should wear a high-quality mask when going to indoor spaces like offices, schools, grocery stores and onboard buses and trains," Wen said. "They should not dine indoors in restaurants or gather with others not in their households. And just before the gathering, everyone should take a COVID-19 test."

— Reach Matt Enright via email at menright@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @Matthew_Enright.