What you need to know
- The flu, RSV, and COVID-19 are all highly contagious respiratory viruses that can make some people very sick.
- Flu and RSV cases are already straining children’s hospitals while new Omicron subvariants spread.
- The best way to stay protected against a “tripledemic” is to get your flu shot and updated COVID-19 booster as soon as possible.
COVID-19 may not be our only worry this winter. Experts are warning of a possible “tripledemic” of flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and COVID-19 cases in the coming months. Flu and RSV cases are already straining children’s hospitals while COVID-19 remains a risk, especially as new immune-evasive variants spread.
What is a “tripledemic” and should we be concerned?
Public health experts are warning of a triple-threat situation in which the flu, RSV, and COVID-19 are all in high circulation at the same time. All three viruses cause highly contagious respiratory infections that can lead to severe symptoms in high-risk individuals. RSV, a common respiratory virus that blocks airways, can be particularly severe in infants and older adults.
The CDC has reported an early rise in flu and RSV cases, hinting that the 2022-2023 season for these two respiratory viruses could be more severe than usual. Meanwhile, nationwide COVID-19 case and hospitalization numbers remain stable, but some Southwest states are seeing concerning trends. New Omicron subvariants BQ.1 and BQ.1.1—which now make up 27 percent of circulating COVID-19 viruses—have also been ringing alarm bells due to their quick spread.
If surges in flu and RSV cases coincide with another COVID-19 wave, we could see a significant spike in sickness that disturbs everyday routines, overwhelms hospital systems, and results in excess deaths.
What do the flu and RSV seasons currently look like?
Flu cases are abnormally high for this point in the year, and RSV cases are at their highest levels since the pandemic began. But it’s not just the case numbers that are concerning: The two non-COVID-19 respiratory viruses also seem to be causing more severe disease, particularly among young children. Flu-related hospitalizations have not been this high at this point in the season since 2009, and RSV is driving many children’s hospitals and pediatric intensive care units to reach or exceed capacity.
Why are flu and RSV cases higher than usual this year?
Experts explain that the abnormally high case counts are likely due to people returning to social activities that had been limited during the pandemic. People have also not been exposed to non-COVID-19 viruses as much over the last few years due to strict public health measures.
Throughout the pandemic, almost everyone engaged in some COVID-19 prevention measures, such as social distancing and mask wearing. As a result, fewer people got sick from or were exposed to viruses like the flu and RSV. Now, as we move closer to our pre-pandemic lifestyles, our immune systems may be encountering these non-COVID-19 viruses for the first time in a while, making us more vulnerable to the viruses than before.
How can I protect myself and my family in the coming months?
Get your flu shot and updated COVID-19 booster as soon as possible. Vaccines and boosters teach our immune systems to fight off a virus without actually giving us the infection. Getting your flu shot will lower the risk of severe infection and lessen the chance that you spread the flu to others. The updated COVID-19 booster is expected to provide better protection against BA.5 and potentially against other Omicron subvariants.
There is no RSV vaccine yet, so the best way to prevent transmission is to stay home when sick, wash your hands, and wear a mask in high-risk situations. States are no longer enforcing COVID-19 guidance like masking and social distancing, so it’s crucial to take your own precautions.