With Thanksgiving and the holiday season right around the corner, we all look forward to reuniting with our loved ones and friends this year. Believe it or not, this is another COVID-19 holiday season.
While it may not seem like the pandemic is still a real threat, more than 370 people die from COVID-19 every day in the US, according to recent data from the CDC. Since the pandemic began, the US has consistently seen a pattern of spikes in cases between November and February, as temperatures get cooler and people gather indoors more. Less masking and adherence to pandemic public health measures make it more likely that the pattern will repeat itself again this year.
Unlike previous years, there are some differences to consider: less reliable official testing data due to the prevalence of home testing; elevated flu rates much earlier in the flu season than we have seen in recent years; and an increase in RSV cases in children that have resulted in unusually high hospitalization rates for what is normally considered a fairly common viral ailment. Many public health officials are concerned that all three of these factors are coming together at once, potentially flooding and stressing our already fragile health care system this holiday season. Careful planning for the upcoming holiday season, with a return to public health measures, vaccinations, and booster shots, could make a world of difference.
The pandemic is not over
You’d be forgiven if you thought the worst of the pandemic was over. After all, data from the Georgia Department of Public Health and the CDC suggests so. Locally, only 89 new cases of COVID-19 have been officially reported in the last three weeks, according to DPH’s Nov. 2 update. Additionally, the seven-day rolling average for Clarke County is just five new cases per day, and no Clarke County residents died of COVID-19 in October, DPH data shows. To date, 233 Clarke County residents have died from COVID-19, with no significant increases since August, and DPH hospitalization data showed only 17 new patients admitted for COVID-19 in the region in the past three weeks, as of The 2nd of November.
However, while DPH data suggests the virus is not causing deaths or severe increases in hospitalizations, home testing has become commonplace and official data on new cases is a gross underestimate of local viral spread. However, wastewater data provides a more accurate perspective. As Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Melissa Link once said, “The poop doesn’t lie.” According to the Erin Lipp Wastewater Monitoring Project at the UGA School of Public Health, COVID-19 is still spreading in Athens-Clarke County at higher levels than it was this time last year, just before the came the wave of the Omicron variant. As of the October 28, 2022 lab update, viral loads have increased in the past month, at the 64th percentile of all samples taken to date, and “were 10 times higher than this time last year.” despite fewer cases being reported. in official data.
“It really has been a very slow ascent since the end of September, much like our slow ascent in the summer. Our levels are now higher than they were at this time last year,” Lipp said. “We may now be at another plateau, but I suspect we will see things pick up around the holidays, as they have in the last couple of years, because people are travelling, on different social media, and will tend to be indoors. And new variants are circulating.
“For the past two years, the levels in the wastewater began to rise in mid to late November and peaked in early January. With the holidays, the travel, and the return to Athens after the winter break, we are likely to see this pattern again.”
Protect yourself and others
Vaccination, booster doses, and public health measures remain the best means to help keep you and your loved ones safe this holiday season. While vaccination rates in Clarke County haven’t seen a big increase in recent months, data from the DPH Vaccine Dashboard shows local vaccination rates are ample: 57% of residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine and 52% have received the full vaccine. and 54% of those who have been fully vaccinated have also received a booster shot. Only 437 children aged 6 months to 4 years (or 6.5%) are vaccinated; while older adults maintain a vaccination rate close to 100%. Children and adults under the age of 25 remain the lowest vaccinated populations in Clarke County.
So what does this mean for Thanksgiving and the upcoming holiday season? According to public health experts, now is the time to act. Get a booster shot, make sure you are vaccinated and that people at higher risk have been vaccinated, or consider other preventative measures to help the spread of COVID-19 infection and other viral spread such as influenza and RSV.
“I think the vaccines [for flu and COVID] are as important as ever to prevent serious illness,” Lipp said, “and people can still use fairly simple mitigation efforts, like gathering in groups outside, increasing ventilation when indoors, and using portable air filters, which help reduce transmission of COVID, RSV, and influenza, all airborne respiratory viruses. And of course well-fitting masks (N95, KN95) also offer personal protection against these.”
At this point in the pandemic, the tried and true rules still apply. First and foremost: Get vaccinated and get a booster if you qualify. Follow basic public health measures that have been recommended since the start of the pandemic: wash your hands, avoid close contact, and wear a mask when indoors with more than a few people.
Who Should Get a COVID Booster
If you received the primary COVID-19 vaccine, are age 50 or older, or are immunocompromised, public health experts recommend receiving a COVID-19 booster. According to cardiologist Jayne Morgan, executive director of the Piedmont Hospital System’s COVID Task Force, the bivalent booster vaccine is available to anyone over the age of 5, but is particularly beneficial for those with pre-existing conditions or who are immunocompromised. The vaccine is safe and could be useful for particularly vulnerable populations with the holiday season ahead.
“The new bivalent booster was specifically formulated to target the Omicron variant,” Morgan said. “So, it’s 50% of the original formulation and 50% of the new formulation targeting the Omicron variant. There is no reason to believe that it is not safe, and all trials to date have pointed to no safety concerns.”
If you are between the ages of 12 and 49 and not immunocompromised, and have already received three or more injections of COVID-19 (i.e., a starting dose of two injections and a booster, a starting dose of one injection and two boosters, or any dose initial full dose of the vaccine and more than two booster doses), your risk of hospitalization or death is significantly reduced; additional reinforcements are not likely to add much protection. However, a booster can give additional protection to others for a couple of months. If you’re seeing older or immunocompromised adults over the holidays, it’s worth getting a booster dose. Receiving a booster dose two to four weeks before the gathering can provide additional protection for the most vulnerable by reducing the likelihood of becoming a vector. Need more guidance? The CDC has an interactive resource to help you determine if you should get a booster dose.
With flu rates soaring so early in the season, consider getting a flu shot this year. According to Morgan, there is a real possibility that a particularly difficult holiday season is ahead.
“RSV arrived early this year, and flu season has yet to peak at a time when people are resisting wearing masks, as well as other public health measures,” he said. “So the possibility exists, especially as peak flu season is generally between December and March, and the SARS-CoV-2 virus continues to mutate with poor absorption of the bivalent booster to date.”
Getting a booster dose of COVID-19 and the flu shot at the same time can mean a day or two of more adverse side effects, but research shows that getting both shots at the same time is safe and likely to have better health outcomes long-term.
“You can get the flu more than once a season,” Morgan said. “A second infection carries the same risk of complications as the first, the most serious being pneumonia and sepsis. Also, heart attacks are six times higher in the first week after getting the flu. This is especially concerning for the elderly and for those with heart and/or lung disease.”
In a nutshell: get vaccinated or boosted. Consider your risk (and that of others), what precautions might help beforehand, and make any necessary changes if at-risk populations will be attending gatherings of family and friends. Consider the risk of attending events in large groups. Are there people who are not vaccinated? Are there older adults or children? Are they immunocompromised in attendance? If so, public health experts suggest more mitigation methods, such as outdoor crowd settings, increased ventilation methods, or masking.
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