Leaves turning color, cooler days and nights, and the return to school are among the signs of fall. Another sign health officials are watching for is whether Minnesotans will see another autumn surge in cases of COVID. Surges in illness have been seen in the fall for the past few years. Health officials say that’s a good reason to get a booster vaccine at this time of year.
Keeping vaccines up-to-date and testing for COVID symptoms is still urged. 2023 will be the first fall and winter seasons without a federal public health emergency in place. That will mean being vigilant about COVID, as well as flu and RSV.
Respiratory syncytial virus or RSV causes infections of the lungs and respiratory tract. It’s so common that most children have been infected with the virus by age 2, according to the Mayo Clinic.
In adults and older, healthy children, symptoms are mild and typically mimic the common cold. Self-care measures are usually all that’s needed to relieve any discomfort. But it can cause severe infection in some people, including babies 12 months and younger (infants), especially premature infants, older adults, people with heart and lung disease, or anyone with a weak immune system (immunocompromised). People with disabilities need to be aware of RSV.
So, what to do with three diseases to think about? Many people routinely get flu shots every fall. RSV vaccines are also becoming available. And of course, many people with disabilities are advised to keep up on COVID booster shots. Health care providers and local health departments can provide information.
The risks of COVID are not over and everyone is advised to continue to take precautions. Just as a surge in cases was seen after this year’s July 4th holiday, surges could also be seen after the Minnesota State Fair. Fair attendance was strong as this issue of Access Press went to press, and fewer people were seen taking precautions.
Minnesota hospitalizations after July 4th increased from 41 on July 3 to 93 after the holiday. Increases in viral material were also found in wastewater samples.
What health officials are watching closely is the new EG.5 coronavirus variant, which became the dominant source of COVID this summer. EG.5 was found in May in Minnesota. Those wanting a booster shot should watch for a new vaccine booster that specifically targets that variant and other shifts in the dominant coronavirus strain.
Around the nation, health officials have emphasized that while COVID hospital admissions have inched upward in the United States since early July, it is in a small-scale version of the past three summers. And the surges are not nearly as great as those in the past. Still, it is a reason to be vigilant and take precautions.
Associated Press reports as August began, the national rate of COVID-19 hospital admissions sat at 9,056. That’s an increase of about 12 percent from the previous reporting period. But it’s a far cry from past peaks, like the 44,000 weekly hospital admissions in early January, the nearly 45,000 in late July 2022, or the 150,000 admissions during the omicron surge of January 2022.
“It is ticking up a little bit, but it’s not something that we need to raise any alarm bells over,’” said Dr. David Dowdy, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
AP also pointed out that while infections may be rising, one challenge comes in how data is tracked. Federal authorities ended the public health emergency in May. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and many states no longer track the number of positive test results.
Since early June, about 500 to 600 people have died each week, according to AP. The number of deaths appeared to be stable this summer, although past increases in deaths have lagged behind hospitalizations.
This fall, officials expect to see updated COVID vaccines that contain one version of the omicron strain, called XBB.1.5. It’s an important change from today’s combination shots, which mix the original coronavirus strain with last year’s most common omicron variants.
It’s not clear exactly when people can start rolling up their sleeves for what officials hope is an annual fall COVID-19 shot. Pfizer, Moderna and smaller manufacturer Novavax all are brewing doses of the XBB update but the Food and Drug Administration will have to sign off on each, and the CDC must then issue recommendations for their use.
Dr. Mandy Cohen, the new CDC director, said she expects people will get their COVID shots where they get their flu shots — at pharmacies and at work — rather than at dedicated locations that were set up early in the pandemic as part of the emergency response.
COVID coverage is provided through a Minnesota Department of Health grant.