Connecticut's top doc on staying healthy during the new 'COVID and flu' season
For the first time in two years, the holiday season will be absent most pandemic-era public health restrictions. What won’t be absent for the third year in a row is the threat of COVID-19 and, for the umpteenth year in a row, the threat of the flu.
Connecticut's Commissioner of Public Health Dr. Manisha Juthani joined Connecticut Public's All Things Considered to share her observations on where the cold and flu season is heading this year and what families can do to stay healthy.
John Henry Smith: We used to say “cold and flu season” — what is on your mind about “COVID and flu season"?
Dr. Manisha Juthani: What is on my mind is that we have lots of respiratory viruses that are already starting to circulate. And we do know that we have two vaccines that can really put a dent in the trajectory, at least of those two viruses, both COVID and flu. We do have the holidays coming up. If people can have it on their radar to preferably try to get these vaccines before Halloween this week, if not in the first week or two of November, so that you have another couple of weeks to build up your immunity to, at least, the two vaccine preventable or reducible infections that we have, going into Thanksgiving, and then all the other social gatherings that I know so many people have been missing over the last many, many years.
John Henry Smith: So I understand that the booster is available to some 2 million Nutmeg State folks aged 5 and up for the Pfizer shot. If I'm understanding that correctly, and age 6 in up for Moderna’s offerings, how are the vaccination numbers looking?
Dr. Manisha Juthani: We have a little over 346,000, probably closer to 350,000 by now people that have been vaccinated with the bivalent booster. This really corresponds with age groups. Our oldest age groups are getting the message that these vaccine-preventable diseases can have their greatest impact. But as we know, and as everybody has understood through this pandemic, it's a collective process for us to combat these viruses. So we need the amount of virus circulating to go down. If we've got school-aged children, college age, people who've got a lot of virus circulating, eventually it makes it to our oldest age groups as well.
John Henry Smith: Doctor, I feel like the next question I'm about to ask has you in the role of Catholic priest inside of the confession booth, but here goes. Over the last two weekends, I have been in indoor establishments with lots of people eating and talking loudly, not a mask in sight, I would never have done that over the past couple of years. I suspect a lot of people are going to be doing likewise in these last few weeks of the year. How much confidence should those of us who are fully vaccinated and boosted have in such settings?
Dr. Manisha Juthani: In terms of what comfort people should feel after having gotten those two shots, I think we can feel that we've done everything in our capability to try to protect ourselves. Again, if you are in an area where there's a lot of COVID circulating or if there are people who are sick around you, I would encourage you to consider a mask and especially depending on your circumstance, your own personal circumstance, there are a lot of people who are choosing to do that in all circumstances. So that's where a little bit of the personal choice does come in. But I do think that you're in as best a situation as you can be. If you have respiratory symptoms and you need to go out, I would ask you to mask to be respectful to those around you to try to prevent the transmission of anything that you might have.
John Henry Smith: I understand that there's a surge across the country of something I had never heard of before called respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). What do folks need to know about that?
Dr. Manisha Juthani: So this is a virus that, very typically, is seen in children. And you know, interestingly, we are seeing a lot of young children who are getting RSV. I think that for a lot of these other viruses, masking did prevent the transmission of some of them over the last couple of years. However, we're seeing with less mask use, now, that these viruses that come back every year are coming back in full force.
One of the things about RSV is that people have gotten out of the habit of good hand hygiene and cleaning surfaces because for COVID, we'd identified that surfaces were less of an issue. But unfortunately for RSV, [it spreads on] surfaces and fomites, particularly among children's play toys and other things that multiple children are touching. And then, touching their faces and nose and putting fingers in their mouths. These are ways that children can be really transmitting RSV, one to the other. This is usually a type of infection that children recover from, we just can't manage too many children at once because we do have a health care workforce that has been tapped out for the last several years. We do have workforce shortages. We have nursing shortages. And so we need everybody to really put whatever they can behind mitigating all respiratory viruses this winter season.
John Henry Smith: And last thing, Doctor, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted to add COVID-19 vaccines to the CDC's 2023 childhood and adult immunization schedules. Now, does that necessarily mean that COVID vaccines will definitely be mandatory for school kids here in Connecticut?
Dr. Manisha Juthani: Absolutely not a mandatory requirement at this time. It's a recommendation from the ACIP. So I think in Connecticut, we are not there yet. I think it is still very important and I highly recommend everybody to get their child who's 5 and older a COVID booster, but we are nowhere close to a mandatory requirement at this time.