As respiratory virus season gets under way, infectious disease experts are urging Lane County residents to take advantage of newly available, updated vaccines to stave off another COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) wave that besieged hospitals last fall.
Paul Cieslak, M.D., of Oregon Health Authority (OHA) and Katie Sharff, M.D., of Kaiser Permanente Northwest say updated COVID-19 and flu shots and new RSV vaccines could help blunt the effect of a respiratory virus trifecta, when cases of all three viruses simultaneously increase, as happened in late 2022. They also are reminding people that use of masks in health care settings where patients at highest risk of severe disease are cared for, such as nursing facilities and hospitals, is “strongly recommended.”
“The potential for another respiratory surge that swamps our hospitals and health care system still exists,” said Cieslak. “Even before COVID-19, influenza and RSV could overwhelm hospitals in some regions of the state.”
Cieslak noted Oregon has seen a steady increase in COVID-19 test positivity since late spring – from 4.3% on May 27 to around 15% by Sept. 16 – and a doubling of COVID-19 hospitalizations since June 21, when the daily count was at 106. And while flu and RSV activity remains low, cases are expected to rise, as typical, during fall months, with students back in school, and people heading indoors to escape colder temperatures and gather during the holidays.
“Straining of hospital capacity will be an issue nationwide, and perhaps more so in Oregon, where we are additionally challenged by the fact that we have relatively few hospital beds per-capita,” Cieslak said.
“The pattern of COVID-19 is still uncertain. We’re not quite sure if COVID is considered a seasonal virus, as we see surges both during summer and winter months,” Sharff said.
Both physicians say vaccination is the best way for people to protect themselves and those around them from infection and reduce the risk of severe illness.
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) voted to recommend updated, COVID-19 monoclonal vaccines. They are designed to protect against circulating mutations of the virus, including the XBB-based Omicron XBB subvariants that account for more than 95% of cases.
The new COVID-19 vaccines, along with an updated version of the seasonal flu vaccine, are now available at some pharmacies and clinics, with more doses expected to arrive in Oregon over the next several weeks. A new RSV monoclonal antibody immunization for babies and toddlers called nirsevimab – known commercially as Beyfortus – will be released later this fall, and a new RSV vaccine for adults 60 and older is now available on the commercial market.