Flu and COVID-19 are soaring but the season has not yet reached its peak, warns CDC director

Winter officially begins Thursday, and with the cold season comes an expected increase in flu and COVID-19 rates, said Dr. Mandy Cohen, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). .

The United States is experiencing a “sharp increase” in flu levels right now, especially in the South, Cohen said in an interview Wednesday. COVID-19 cases also appear to be rising nationally, he said, while cases of respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, appear to have peaked this season.

“We’re seeing RSV peak a little earlier, but We don’t think we’re close to the climax of the flu or COVID-19 yet.“Cohen said.

The CDC sent out an alert last week warning health care professionals about low vaccination rates against COVID-19, flu and RSV.Getty Images

As of December 9, the weekly number of positive RSV tests in the United States had dropped about 16% compared to the previous week.

The pattern is different compared to last year, Cohen said, when all three viruses “seemed to peak at about the same time.”

After an early start in October 2022, flu infection rates peaked in late November and early December. RSV infections reached a similar peak in November, even though their rates typically peak in winter.

Last year, children’s hospitals were overwhelmed by a dramatic increase in serious illnesses caused by RSV, most likely because many babies born during the pandemic were not exposed to RSV in their first or second year of life due to the use of masks and to social distancing.

But this year, Cohen said, “we’re not seeing any strains overall in our pediatric hospitals, so we think this is a more typical RSV season.”

COVID-19 infections also appear similar this season compared to last, he added.

“COVID-19 is causing the highest number of hospitalizations and deaths of all viruses, but it doesn’t seem to be any more serious than last year around these dates, which is good news,” Cohen said.

However, the JN.1 variant – which accounts for around 21% of COVID-19 cases nationwide – could accelerate the spread of the virus. Cohen explained that the variant appears to be more transmissible than other strains in circulation, although vaccines should continue to offer good protection against it.

“That’s precisely why we want people to get the updated COVID-19 vaccine, because it fits the changes we’re seeing in the virus,” he said.

Mandy Cohen poses for a portrait in July.
CDC Director Mandy Cohen.Alyssa Pointer for NBC News file

The CDC sent out an alert last week warning health care professionals about low vaccination rates against COVID-19, flu and RSV.

About 18% of adults and 8% of children 6 months and older have received the updated COVID-19 vaccines, which have been available since September and target a variant called XBB.1.5. A preliminary study that has not yet been reviewed by other specialists suggests that the updated mRNA vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer also increase antibody protection against JN.1.

Likewise, this year’s flu vaccine appears to be a good fit for the strains in circulation and has reduced the risk of hospitalizations flu by 52% in the southern hemisphere, according to a CDC report.

The CDC estimates that 42% of adults and 43% of children have received a flu vaccine so far this year, compared to 47% of adults and 57% of children vaccinated during the season. from previous flu.

Cohen said he made sure his own children, ages 9 and 11, received COVID-19 and flu vaccines.

RSV vaccines, meanwhile, are new this year, and only two groups – pregnant women and adults 60 years and older – are eligible. The virus is usually mild in young, healthy adults, but babies under 6 months are especially prone to developing serious infections, which is why vaccines for pregnant women are designed to transfer antibodies across the placenta.

According to the CDC, until December 9 only 17% of older adults had been vaccinated against RSV. Data are not available for pregnant women, some of whom have reported problems getting the vaccine covered by their insurance or finding it at pharmacies or doctor’s offices.

The FDA has also approved an injectable RSV drug for breastfed babies called nirsevimab, but the CDC reported a supply shortage in October. The companies responsible for the drug made an additional 77,000 doses available in November, and 230,000 more doses are expected to be available in January.

When it comes to travel and holiday gatherings, Cohen said people should consider not only their own risk of infection, but also the risks to those they are celebrating with.

“Are you going to spend Christmas with your grandparents? Are you going to be with co-workers who are fighting cancer?” Make sure that you, as an individual, are thinking not only about yourselfbut also in those around you.