Guidance for Practicing Primary Care

How to have a safer and more joyful holiday season


 

This holiday season, I am looking forward to spending some time with family, as I have in the past. As I have chatted with others, many friends are looking forward to events that are potentially larger and potentially returning to prepandemic type gatherings.

Dr. Santina J. G. Wheat, associate professor of family and community medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago

Dr. Santina J.G. Wheat

Gathering is important and can bring joy, sense of community, and love to the lives of many. Unfortunately, the risks associated with gathering are not over. We are currently facing what many are calling a “tripledemic” as our country faces many cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), COVID-19, and influenza at the same time.

During the first week of December, cases of influenza were rising across the country1 and were rising faster than in previous years. Although getting the vaccine is an important method of influenza prevention and is recommended for everyone over the age of 6 months with rare exception, many have not gotten their vaccine this year.

Influenza

Thus far, “nearly 50% of reported flu-associated hospitalizations in women of childbearing age have been in women who are pregnant.” We are seeing this at a time with lower-than-average uptake of influenza vaccine leaving both the pregnant persons and their babies unprotected. In addition to utilizing vaccines as prevention, isolating when ill, cleaning surfaces, and practicing good hand hygiene can all decrease transmission.

RSV

In addition to rises of influenza, there are currently high rates of RSV in various parts of the country. Prior to 2020, RSV typically started in the fall and peaked in the winter months. However, since the pandemic, the typical seasonal pattern has not returned, and it is unclear when it will. Although RSV hits the very young, the old, and the immunocompromised the most, RSV can infect anyone. Unfortunately, we do not currently have a vaccine for everyone against this virus. Prevention of transmission includes, as with flu, isolating when ill, cleaning surfaces, and washing hands.2

COVID-19

Of course, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are also still here as well. During the first week of December, the CDC reported rising cases of COVID across the country. Within the past few months, there have been several developments, though, for protection. There are now bivalent vaccines available as either third doses or booster doses approved for all persons over 6 months of age. As of the first week of December, only 13.5% of those aged 5 and over had received an updated booster.

There is currently wider access to rapid testing, including at-home testing, which can allow individuals to identify if COVID positive. Additionally, there is access to medication to decrease the likelihood of severe disease – though this does not take the place of vaccinations.

If anyone does test positive for COVID, they should follow the most recent quarantine guidelines including wearing a well-fitted mask when they do begin returning to activities.3

With rising cases of all three of these viruses, some may be asking how we can safely gather. There are several things to consider and do to enjoy our events. The first thing everyone can do is to receive updated vaccinations for both influenza and COVID-19 if eligible. Although it may take some time to be effective, vaccination is still one of our most effective methods of disease prevention and is important this winter season. Vaccinations can also help decrease the risk of severe disease.

Although many have stopped masking, as cases rise, it is time to consider masking particularly when community levels of any of these viruses are high. Masks help with preventing and spreading more than just COVID-19. Using them can be especially important for those going places such as stores and to large public gatherings and when riding on buses, planes, or trains.

In summary

Preventing exposure by masking can help keep individuals healthy prior to celebrating the holidays with others. With access to rapid testing, it makes sense to consider testing prior to gathering with friends and family. Most importantly, although we all are looking forward to spending time with our loved ones, it is important to stay home if not feeling well. Following these recommendations will allow us to have a safer and more joyful holiday season.

Dr. Wheat is a family physician at Erie Family Health Center and program director of Northwestern University’s McGaw Family Medicine residency program, both in Chicago. Dr. Wheat serves on the editorial advisory board of Family Practice News. You can contact her at fpnews@mdedge.com.

References

1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Influenza (flu). [Online] Dec. 1, 2022. [Cited: 2022 Dec 10.] https://www.cdc.gov/flu/index.htm.

2. Respiratory syncytial virus. Respiratory syncytial virus infection (RSV). [Online] Oct. 28, 2022. [Cited: 2022 Dec 10.] https://www.cdc.gov/rsv/index.html.

3. COVID-19. [Online] Dec. 7, 2022. [Cited: 2022 Dec 10.] https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html.

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