Get vaccinated, wash your hands thoroughly: Authorities offer advice to protect against RSV, flu and COVID-19

A spike in a respiratory virus that’s dangerous for children, an early flu season and ongoing COVID-19 infections have health officials warning Wisconsin residents to take precautions to minimize the spread of the disease.

Health officials say that especially those traveling this year’s holidays should get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the flu, wash their hands thoroughly, disinfect surfaces and take other steps to avoid exposing others to illness.

Of particular concern this year is RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus. For adults, its symptoms are typically those of a mild cold. But the virus can be serious in children, especially those under one year old, and poses risks for older people with suppressed immune systems.

RSV cases started to increase in October and, according to data from the State Department of Health Services, this increase continued until this month. It is the dominant strain of the respiratory virus in the state, and all regions have seen an increase in infections in recent weeks.

In a media call last week, Dr. Jasmine Zapata, a pediatrician who heads DHS’s Department of Community Health Promotion, acknowledged that the spread of the disease can cause anxiety in parents of young children.

“This can be a very scary time,” Zapata said. “But we want everyone to remember that there are preventative measures you can take to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, flu and RSV in your children.”

Vaccines are available for COVID-19 and influenza, though not for RSV.

RSV is spread by coughing or sneezing droplets, which means that thorough hand washing and surface disinfection can be effective ways to limit its spread, as can teaching children and adults to sneeze in the crook of their arms rather than directly into the hands.

Like other states, Wisconsin saw virtually no flu spread at the height of the pandemic, largely due to protective measures taken primarily to slow the spread of COVID-19. That’s not true this year, said Tom Haupt, a respiratory disease epidemiologist and influenza surveillance coordinator at DHS. The number of flu cases doubled in the first two weeks of November, and Haupt predicts cases will peak in the coming weeks.

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“This is an early year,” Haupt said. “Typically, that’s around this time when we start to see a little bit (of flu activity), but we shouldn’t be at high or widespread activity at this particular point.”

The flu can be dangerous, especially for the immunocompromised, and a strong flu season can strain hospital capacity. That’s not yet happening in Wisconsin, but officials are concerned that the simultaneous rise in infections from three respiratory viruses could increase the risk of overwhelmed health care systems.

Only about 27 percent of Wisconsinites have received a flu shot this year, according to state data.

Reported cases of COVID-19 are decreasing, although many people may not be reporting their infections to health departments the way most did during the height of the pandemic. On average, about three Wisconsin residents died of COVID-19 a day this month.

Sixty-two percent of Wisconsin residents have been vaccinated against COVID-19, and the vaccines have been shown to be effective in preventing serious infections and death from the disease. But far fewer have received this year’s updated booster shots, which are especially protective against newer variants of the virus. According to statewide data, only 14% of Wisconsinites have received an updated COVID-19 booster.

“There will always be a risk of coming into contact with this virus, and the way to stay protected is to keep your vaccinations up to date,” said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, medical director of the Bureau of Communicable Diseases. “It’s not a yes or no, are you vaccinated or not. That was true (before the COVID-19 virus mutations emerged). Now it’s: are you up to date with your vaccines?”

Westergaard noted that while most people expect respiratory virus transmission to increase in the holiday season as people travel and gather with others, taking smart precautions can help limit transmission of all three illnesses.

People should “think about the power, the control they have over their risk of getting sick while on holiday,” Westergaard said. “And if we all think about it, and we all make these behavior changes, we’ll see less (disease transmission) at the population level as well.”

Get vaccinated, wash your hands thoroughly: Authorities offer advice to protect against RSV, flu and COVID-19

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