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Clarence Fanto: COVID, flu, RSV make for a ‘tripledemic,’ but most folks throw caution to the wind

Woman getting vax

COVID-19 bivalent booster shots were in ample supply in the Berkshires this fall, but few people have taken advantage of the opportunity to protect themselves.

LENOX — Who said COVID is in the rearview mirror?

I’ve never subscribed to that line of thinking. It was shocking when President Biden said “the pandemic is over.” That was on Sept. 18, and his health advisers, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, were surprised as they hastened to walk back the offhand remark.

Too many people I know have come down with COVID for the first, second, or even third time. And yes, some were fully vaccinated and boosted.

On Tuesday, there were 54,369 new cases reported nationwide, up 28 percent from two weeks ago, according to the New York Times pandemic tracker.

Community transmission is low in Berkshire County, with an average of 11 new cases a day currently, but the number of hospitalized patients has risen and test positivity rate is high.

Of course, the local and national numbers are a dramatic undercount, since most testing is done at home and never reported to health authorities.

I’m keeping handy a box of 100 masks and a half-dozen Binax COVID tests. Going into crowded public settings remains nerve-racking, though necessary for my work and for retaining a semblance of social interaction. Supermarket shopping at 7 a.m. on Sundays remains a necessary precaution.

This is a season of widespread maladies — traditional influenza is back with vengeance, and the RSV respiratory virus, hopefully now peaking, has it children especially hard.

So, we’re in a “tripledemic” and, in some respects, we have ourselves to blame. Only 13 percent of eligible people have taken the bivalent COVID booster shot.

So far this season, 40 percent of adults have received flu shots and 20 percent more say they plan to get the jab. But about 4 in 10 Americans say they won’t, primarily because they think the vaccines don’t work well or have side effects.

Influenza hospitalizations this early in the season are higher than they have been in a decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Since Oct. 1, there have already been at least 8.7 million illnesses, 78,000 hospitalizations, and 4,500 deaths from flu,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky this week.

While it’s true that flu shots are not guaranteed to prevent illness, nor are COVID vaccines and boosters, they are safe and certainly improve the odds of avoiding a severe case leading to hospitalization.

Ironically, the highly necessary pandemic precautions in 2020 and 2021, now abandoned, may have left us more vulnerable to seasonal respiratory diseases.

Flu-connected hospital admissions over Thanksgiving week almost doubled over the previous week, the highest for that period since the 2010-11 season, the CDC reported.

Adults 65 and older and kids 4 and under have been most affected during the unusually early surge, especially if they had underlying health conditions, according to the Axios news site.

The return to pre-pandemic life has left us “immunologically naïve” and more susceptible to infections. “[Normally], we might get exposed to a small bit of virus and your body fights it off,” John Tregoning, an immunologist at Imperial College London, told Nature, the weekly British science journal. But now, not so much.

The following advice probably falls on too many deaf ears.

“We can’t let up our guard,” U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy told ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “We have to take the precautions that we need to prevent the spread of these viruses, like washing our hands, wearing masks in crowded indoor spaces, and like making sure that we’re staying home if we’re sick.

COVID-19 remains a threat, perhaps appearing less ominous because of at-home testing, vaccines, boosters and antiviral medication like Paxlovid, often prescribed for older adults.

But, since most states are seeing high levels of flu-like illness, multiple respiratory viruses threaten to overwhelm the health care system especially in the weeks ahead as people travel for the holidays and gather indoors in close quarters with friends and family.

Call it a third pandemic winter or, as American Medical Association board Chair Dr. Sandra Fryhofer put it, “It’s a perfect storm for a terrible holiday season. We all have booster fatigue, but understand you could get really, really sick this year and ruin your holiday celebrations if you don’t get vaccinated.”

“The past several years have certainly not been easy, and now we face another surge of illness, another moment of overstretched capacity, and one of tragic and often preventable sadness,” Walensky said at Monday’s CDC briefing.

She pointed out that early data suggests this year’s flu shot formula appears to be well matched against the circulating strains, and shots drive down hospitalizations even when they do not stop infections.

The bottom line: Mandates are history, even in China. But common sense precautions are being ignored by many, if not most of us. And risky behavior is foolhardy.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com.

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