Vaccine expert Dr. Paul Offit recently wrote a book called “You Bet Your Life” about the risks on both sides of any medical decision. His bottom line is there’s risk either way, so make an informed choice. At the fork in the road, take the measured risk that’s likely to turn out best.
Offit’s message feels spot on for this holiday season as influenza and respiratory syncytial virus spikes in the United States and COVID-19 continues to loom. Looking ahead to gathering with family and friends, do we attempt normalcy or should we take extra precautions, especially when plans involve the elderly and immunocompromised?
Here are five best practices that could help keep illness at bay during our third pandemic holiday:
1. Steer clear of people who are ill and, if the sick person is you, stay home. This can be hard to do, but infection prevention expert Dr. Michelle Barron, of UCHealth in Colorado, says to use common sense.
“If you’re sick, you don’t want to give your illness to grandma and grandpa. At the end of the day, the goal is to still be able to do things and enjoy the holidays. Just do it in a way that doesn’t impact others badly,” said Barron, who is senior medical director of infection prevention and control for UCHealth in Aurora.
2. Get a flu shot. Respiratory viruses, including influenza, surged dramatically in November, causing the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to issue an emergency alert to physicians and public health authorities. Everyone six months and older should be vaccinated against influenza, according to the CDC.
“Cumulative influenza-associated hospitalization rates for children (age 0–4 years and 5–17 years) and all ages combined are notably higher compared to the same time periods during previous seasons since 2010–2011,” the alert said.
It’s difficult to predict flu’s impact this season, but heightened activity is expected through winter in the Northern Hemisphere.
3. Wash your hands and clean surfaces, says the CDC. Though COVID-19 is transmitted primarily through the air, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus spread through droplets. And when those droplets land on hands and high-touch areas – like mobile phones and door knobs, others can pick them up and get infected.
4. Get up to date on COVID-19 vaccines. Booster doses are available and recommended for most, including the immunocompromised. A Johns Hopkins immunologist recently updated people who have primary immunodeficiencies about how to assess their COVID-19 risk.
5. Avoid large crowds and take indoor air quality into account. Masks remain a personal – and divisive topic – but fresh air might be something everyone can agree on. Experts recommend opening windows and using fans and air purifiers with HEPA filters to get the air circulating at home. And one aerosol scientist tested various environments, like shopping malls and airports, to estimate air quality and found a wide variance. Tight spaces like small grocery stores and airport restrooms were the least ventilated.
Learn more about Offit’s book, “You Bet Your Life,” which includes a shout-out to 1901 Nobel Prize winner Emil von Behring and chronicles the long road to today’s safety standards for medicines and vaccines.