The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Three viruses are waging an attack. But you don’t have to surrender.

A flu vaccine is readied at the L.A. Care and Blue Shield of California Promise Health Plans in Lynwood, Calif., on, Oct. 28. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

The epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina spared no words this week in noting that the United States is awash in viruses, with covid-19, RSV and influenza all rising together. “I’m running out of adjectives to describe it,” she said. “Unprecedented. Worrisome. A pain. Exhausting.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the level of “influenza-like illness,” or ILI, a broad measure of respiratory disease in the community, is soaring. But there are ways to fight back.

Influenza is always seasonal; this year it struck early. According to the CDC, hospitalization rates in the week of Nov. 20-26 were higher than during that week in every previous flu season of the last 11 years. Also, the number of flu hospital admissions that week almost doubled compared with the week before. Fortunately, the majority of viruses being tested are genetic matches to those in the flu vaccine this year. What you can do: get a flu shot.

For many years, scientists have worried about the potential of influenza evolving into a pandemic and catching humans off guard without an effective vaccine. They have searched in vain for a universal flu vaccine that could take on all influenza viruses, including those that have yet to emerge. Current vaccines are built to immunize against only four strains. Now, Scott Hensley of the University of Pennsylvania and colleagues have reported a positive development. Using the mRNA technology that proved so successful in the covid pandemic, they have developed an experimental flu vaccine that, in tests on mice and ferrets, appears to fight the entire family of influenza viruses. This could transform the way we combat influenza, both seasonal and pandemic.

Leana Wen

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Meanwhile, the covid pandemic is not yet over. After the Thanksgiving holiday brought people together indoors, covid hospitalizations among those 70 years and older have jumped 28 percent, a sign of a potential new wave. As Ms. Jetelina points out, this represents a public health failure. Uptake of the bivalent booster is only 32.6 percent of the eligible population over 65 years old, and a disastrously low 12.7 percent of those 5 years and older, according to the CDC. The federal government needs to redouble efforts to improve the booster uptake, and to persuade the vulnerable, especially the elderly, to get the shots. Health-care workers and community leaders should join the campaign. The bivalent booster does not squarely aim at the new variants that are emerging, but should provide protection against severe illness and hospitalization, and thus the benefits of the shot outweigh not getting it. The low booster uptake means that millions of Americans are relying on earlier vaccinations that are waning in effectiveness. Many who had covid will also have some natural immunity. But as professor Eric Topol declared recently: “It’s quite simple. You want to avoid severe covid and hospitalization, you need a booster within the past 4-6 months.”

CDC director Rochelle Walensky told us Wednesday that the first line of defense for Americans and their families is getting a covid booster and a flu shot. “Item number two: Do what you can to protect yourself,” she said. “Don’t go out when you’re sick. Don’t be around people who are sick, cough into your sleeve, go to well-ventilated places and wear masks.”

Although the CDC recommendation for masks is based on covid, they work to mitigate the other respiratory viruses, too. It makes sense to take them out of the drawer and put them on to fight all three of the current viruses, especially when you are indoors in a crowded place. It can help you get through the months ahead without the suffering both covid and influenza can inflict.

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