With respiratory illnesses increasing in Nebraska, it’s time for those who haven’t done so already to check vaccinations off their holiday to-do lists, health officials say.
The good news is that there is still time.
While respiratory syncytial virus or RSV, hit particularly early and hard last year, it and the two other main viruses tracked by health officials — influenza and COVID-19 — have been on a somewhat slower trajectory this fall.
And while getting an influenza, COVID-19 or RSV shot this week won’t provide much protection in time for Thanksgiving dinner, there are plenty of holiday gatherings ahead.
“We definitely encourage people to get all of their assorted respiratory season vaccines,” said Lindsay Huse, director of the Douglas County Health Department.
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It takes about two weeks from the time a person is vaccinated for her immune system to gear up to provide full protection. “Definitely don’t wait, because there’s not much time between now and Christmas and all those other gatherings,” she said. “The sooner the better.”
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week that influenza activity continued to increase in most of the nation and was very high in seven southern states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
Nebraska and Iowa both had minimal flu activity, based on the number of people reporting fever plus a cough or sore throat during visits to doctors’ offices. Positive tests for flu in Nebraska had crept up slightly but were well behind last year’s sharp, early rise.
The state recorded 204 cases of RSV last week, according to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services’ respiratory illness dashboard, an increase from about two dozen a week in early October.
Huse said COVID-19 appears to have made disease cycles less predictable. Last year’s RSV season began in August and spiked in September and October. Health officials still are trying to figure out how disease patterns will play out in the future.
“Certainly, things can change kind of quickly,” she said. “We can see things spike up faster than expected.”
While this season isn’t producing anything out of the ordinary so far, the fact that three respiratory illness seasons now can coincide is worrisome, Huse said. Last year’s combination strained children’s hospitals in particular.
While influenza viruses spread year-round, according to CDC, most of the time flu activity peaks between December and February.
“We want people to be aware and practice good respiratory etiquette this time of year — and get vaccinated,” she said.
When it comes to COVID-19, numbers in Nebraska have ticked up but remain well below past peaks.
Douglas County had tallied 284 cases for the week that ended Thursday, up from 226 the week before. Also creeping up slowly in recent weeks is the seven-day total number of cases per 100,000 residents, which stood at 52.3 on Thursday. That’s the highest it has been since early April.
Nebraska as a whole reported just over 1,000 cases for the week ending Nov. 11, also the highest tally since early April. Because many people are no longer testing or using at-home tests that aren’t reported to local health departments, however, case counts are believed to fall short of actual cases in communities.
Concentrations of the virus in wastewater in the state overall as of Nov. 8 were higher than they had been since last March, according to preliminary data from the state health department. Counts at the majority of participating wastewater treatment plants were high or very high and increasing. A few were very high and decreasing.
Nationally, hospital admissions for COVID-19 were down slightly from September but were again approaching last April’s levels. New weekly hospital admissions in Nebraska also were approaching those of April, although at 140 they also were well below the past two winters.
Nationally, according to CDC, about 35% of American adults and 33% of children have been vaccinated for flu, with both down from last year.
Locally, the Visiting Nurse Association announced Monday that it will provide free, in-home flu vaccination for residents of Sarpy and Cass Counties who face substantial financial or physical barriers to getting flu shots through its Protecting Community Health Initiative. The program is supported by a $3,000 grant from the Midlands Community Foundation.
Those who believe they are eligible for in-home flu vaccination can contact VNA for an assessment by contacting immunization coordinator Katie Pile at email@example.com or 402-930-4000.
Flu vaccination rates, however, are higher than for either COVID-19 or RSV. About 14% of adults and 5% of children have received the latest version of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to CDC.
About 13.5% of adults over 60, the group eligible, have gotten one of the RSV shots that became available earlier this year.
A new RSV vaccine also is available for pregnant women. Health officials encourage them to consult with their doctors about getting it because it can protect their infants. A new RSV medication for babies is in short supply nationwide.
This report contains material from the Associated Press.