With colder temperatures this week signaling winter's approach, something else is coming, too: respiratory illness season.
According to the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services, only 7.3% of all N.C. emergency room visits last week were for respiratory illness symptoms, compared with 16.8% of visits for the same time last year. But public health experts warn the slower start to this year’s cold, flu and Covid-19 season doesn't guarantee anything for the months ahead.
“Just because we're not seeing it (high numbers) right now doesn't mean that we won't see it later in the season,” Jennifer Green, health director for the Cumberland County Dept. of Public Health, told CityView.
Green said flu season is hard to predict, especially this early into fall. She urged Cumberland County residents to get vaccinated — even if the early indicators aren't as high as last year’s.
Outcomes for respiratory illness season depend heavily on people getting vaccinated, staying home when sick and practicing good hygiene, Green said.
“If everybody stops those basic behaviors, then we will see a turn in our flu season,” she said.
Green’s advice comes after the NCDHHS announced the first flu-related deaths of the 2023-24 flu season — two adults in western N.C.
In Cumberland County, Green typically sees no more than 10 flu-related deaths in a season, with the victims usually being older adults and, occasionally, infants, who are the most at risk of severe illness or death because of weakened immune systems. Last year, only one flu death was reported in Cumberland County by the NCDHHS.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with rare exceptions, flu shots are recommended for everyone older than 6 months. Those who have had rare but severe reactions to flu shot ingredients should check with their health care providers before getting vaccinated.
Green said she wants everyone who is eligible for the vaccine to get it every year. She also said it was important to dispel some myths about the vaccine's effectiveness.
“We have to remind folks that the flu shot does not cause you to get the flu,” Green said, citing a common misconception. The flu vaccine is made of an inactivated virus and is not infectious.
Green explained that sometimes people can get infected before they get the shot, but don’t become symptomatic until later on. She added that the vaccine can also take time to become effective — around two weeks — so infections are possible during that window as well. In some cases, people can still get the flu even after getting the vaccine and passing the two-week immunity period, but that should not deter folks from getting the shot either.
“Even if you get your flu shot or you get your Covid shot and you still get the flu, you're much less likely to wind up in the hospital for those things,” Green said.
Beyond just the flu, Green said people still need to be aware of the potential of Covid and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infections this season. After last winter’s “tripledemic” of flu, Covid and RSV, Green is still worried about cases of all three spiking this winter as well.
“I worry that because our numbers look OK right now, that people are going to say, ‘I don't need a flu shot. I don't need my Covid shot,’” she said.
What can make the difference this year are new vaccines for both Covid and RSV. The Food and Drug Administration approved an updated Covid vaccine in September, and new RSV vaccines earlier this year for adults over 60, infants under 24 months and those who are pregnant.
Green said the new RSV vaccines have limited availability and may not be affordable for uninsured and underinsured individuals. While the department does not have doses at this time, the health director also said the Cumberland County DPH is working on securing RSV vaccines at low or no cost for all three age groups. The new Covid vaccines are free regardless of insurance status, thanks to the DPH.
For those who end up getting sick, Green said treatment options are available for both Covid and flu.
While the DPH doesn’t offer either treatment, Green recommends that those feeling unwell visit a doctor and get tested for both the flu and Covid.
“They can help you differentiate whether this is flu or Covid or RSV,” Green said.
All three illnesses have different treatment plans so it is important to test early, Green noted, especially as medications used to treat Covid, like Paxlovid, are more effective earlier on in the illness.
“They don't work as well if you wait a week (before starting),” she said.
For those looking to either get a flu shot or an updated Covid vaccine before respiratory illness season ramps up, the Cumberland County DPH is hosting a Vax Your Pet, Vax Yourself from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday outside of the health department at 1235 Ramsey St. There will be free flu and Covid shots for humans and $5 rabies shots for pets, which are required annually for all pets by the state of North Carolina.
More information on vaccines and Covid tests is available on the Cumberland County Department of Public Health’s website: https://www.cumberlandcountync.gov/departments/public-health-group/public-health.
Contact Char Morrison at email@example.com.