As the COVID-19 pandemic approaches its third year, San Diego County Health officials are warning of a “tripledemic” this winter as three viruses threaten to put people’s health at risk. What can you do to help keep yourself and your family well?
In this video, San Diego Health host Susan Taylor talks with Siu Ming Geary, MD, an internal medicine physician at Scripps Clinic Rancho Bernardo, about the tripledemic and the vaccines you need to get now.
The tripledemic refers to the rise of three viruses that are causing illness across the United States: COVID, flu and RSV. While most people are familiar with COVID and flu, RSV may be relatively new to many. RSV stands for respiratory syncytial virus, a common respiratory virus.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), RSV usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms. However, in infants younger than 12 months of age — and especially under six months — there’s a high risk of severe lower respiratory infections, such as bronchiolitis or pneumonia. Seniors and people with chronic respiratory conditions or weakened immune systems also have an increased risk of complications. For all these groups, the risks of hospitalization and death are higher than average.
RSV isn’t new, and before the pandemic, many people were becoming ill with RSV or flu. Once COVID-19 hit, mitigation measures, such as masks, school closures and social distancing, intended to help reduce the spread of the virus also helped reduce RSV and flu.
“But with loosening of these mitigation measures, we are actually seeing a rise of those cases now, especially RSV, and we’re seeing a spike in hospitalizations of young children,” says Dr. Geary.
COVID also remains a threat, and while it hasn’t received as much attention as COVID in the past few years, the flu is still a serious virus. It too can cause severe illness or death, especially for these vulnerable populations and people with chronic diseases, such as diabetes or heart disease.
One of the most important steps you can take to help protect yourself from serious illness is to get both the flu and COVID vaccines.
Getting the flu vaccine every year can help decrease the risk of both hospitalization and death. People six months of age and up can get the flu shot; if you are 65 or older, Dr. Geary recommends a high-dose flu vaccine, which studies have shown is more effective than the standard dose. While the CDC recommends that people get the flu vaccine between September and October, there is plenty of flu season left.
“The reality is it’s never too late, and anytime during the flu season, you should still get your vaccine. We're seeing the surge in cases and it is very contagious,” says Dr. Geary. “It takes about two weeks for the flu vaccine to take effect. If you have not had a chance to get your vaccine, now’s the time to go get it. You want to be protected as early as possible.”
The flu shot can help prevent the flu, but what about COVID? Dr. Geary says COVID vaccines and boosters are the next step in tripledemic prevention.
“Getting the flu shot does not protect you from COVID,” she says. “COVID vaccines are now available beginning at six months of age, and boosters for ages five and up. The current recommendations are that if it’s been more than two months since your last COVID vaccine, you can get your COVID booster shot.”
There’s no need to make two appointments: In most cases, you can get a flu vaccine and a COVID vaccine at the same time. Scripps patients can make an appointment online at myscripps.org. Most pharmacies also offer the vaccines at no cost.
While there is no vaccine available to protect against RSV, you can help avoid getting sick by following the same rules for any respiratory virus:
- Wash your hands
- Don’t touch your face
- Wear a mask
- If sick, isolate at home, avoid spreading
- Avoid sharing food, utensils or towels
These guidelines also apply to flu and COVID.
“We recommend to everyone, go get your vaccines. We truly believe in preventive care and this is something that we can really make a dent in as a society,” says Dr. Geary. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”