Our opinion: Illness surrounds us at holidays

As life has steadily returned to normal after the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the masks have largely come off and people are returning to the rhythms of life they enjoyed before March 2020. This year, that will mean lots of holiday gatherings, travel and merriment.

And even though — fingers crossed – the celebrations will not be punctuated this year by grim tidings about COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, it is all too likely that illness will be in the air before the clock runs out on 2022, and it will be afflicting the most vulnerable among us the most severely.

Already, there have been a steady stream of news reports about emergency rooms and pediatric wards being overtaken with children who have the flu, COVID-19 or respiratory syncytial virus, which is known more simply as RSV. The reason there’s been such a spike? With children out of school and out of contact with one another for large parts of 2020 and 2021, the viruses have not had a chance to circulate. That means they are resurfacing now with a vengeance.

Elizabeth Schlaudecker, the clinical director of the infectious diseases division at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, told USA Today, “A lot of children everywhere are getting these viruses for the first time in rapid succession. It’s a strain on the health care system because some of the kids are more sick and require medical attention.”

Of course, in seasons when illness is rife, older adults already weakened by long-term afflictions are also very vulnerable.

To an extent, some of this is out of our hands – short of living in a plastic bubble or a cabin in the deepest woods, viruses will circulate as long as human beings come into contact with one another. And, unfortunately, there is not yet a vaccine for RSV, though researchers are working on one. When you consider the speed at which COVID-19 vaccines were developed and their effectiveness, the possibility of an RSV vaccine arriving before too long is a distinct possibility. Pfizer is developing one, and it has shown positive results in trials.

In the meantime, however, there are sensible actions we can take that will offer some protection in the weeks ahead. Getting a flu vaccine is important and, of course, so is being fully up to date with COVID-19 vaccines. So far, the rate of children getting the shots has been fairly low, as has the rate at which adults are getting the latest booster shot, which offers protection against variants that have emerged over the last year or so. Anyone who is waiting to get their children vaccinated, or get the boosters, should make haste to their nearest pharmacy or health care provider.

Wearing masks in crowded public places protects you and protects loved ones. And it might even mean catching one or two fewer colds. Keeping sick children home from school or day care will prevent them from infecting their peers.

The threat of COVID-19 is no longer as potent as it was this time last year. But that doesn’t mean, as we head into the holiday season, that we should fully let our guard down.


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