To promote health and safety in communities across the state, West Virginia University health experts encourage everyone to practice prevention through vaccination as respiratory illness season approaches.
COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus or RSV are common, especially in the fall and winter, and vaccines to help prevent serious illness are now available for all three viruses.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics is predicting a similar respiratory illness season compared to last year, with a possibility of more widespread illness and health care system strain.
Protect yourself and others
The best way to prevent severe illness caused by COVID-19, flu and RSV is to get vaccinated.
“Vaccinations for respiratory infections are helpful in preventing serious complications if an individual is exposed to one of these illnesses,” said Dr. Carmen Burrell, medical director of WVU Student Health Services and Urgent Care. “Vaccines also help to decrease the spread of illness and create herd immunity.”
In September, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved use of the 2023-24 updated Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines in the United States. These updated vaccines closely target currently circulating variants and will help provide further protection against COVID-19 that may have decreased over time for individuals.
Individuals ages six months and older are eligible for COVID-19 vaccination. West Virginians are encouraged to use the free, online WV COVID-19 Vaccination Due Date Calculator to determine when they are eligible and due for any COVID-19 shot.
An annual flu vaccine is recommended for everyone six months and older, with rare exceptions, and it is particularly important for individuals with conditions that could put them at higher risk for serious complications. The CDC estimates that during the 2022-23 flu season there were up to 50 million illnesses, 670,000 hospitalizations and more than 17,000 deaths attributed to flu.
This year, the FDA also approved use of the first RSV vaccine for people 60 years and older and individuals who are pregnant. Vaccine protection is passed on to infants when a pregnant individual becomes vaccinated. The vaccine also protects older adults who are at high risk for severe disease caused by RSV, including life-threatening pneumonia and bronchiolitis.
Individuals with questions regarding vaccines should communicate with their health care provider. WVU students can reach out to Student Health at 304-285-7200.
“Vaccines for flu, COVID-19 and RSV are widely accessible for the community at a variety of locations,” Dr. Gretchen Garofoli, clinical associate professor in the School of Pharmacy, said. “In addition to availability at doctors’ offices and clinics, most pharmacies also offer these vaccines, and offer advanced scheduling and walk-in appointments.”
WVU Medicine Urgent Care offers flu and COVID-19 vaccination opportunities on a walk-in basis. Individuals can also find many walk-in and appointment-based opportunities in their local community, including primary care providers, local pharmacies and community clinics. To ensure vaccine availability, such as the high-dose influenza vaccine intended for individuals ages 65 and older, individuals may want to call ahead.
“Full protection after vaccination can take two weeks, so it is best to get vaccinated as soon as they are available in your community,” Garofoli added. “Vaccination in early fall will provide protection against the most common strains of a virus in the peak season occurring October through March.”
Watch for symptoms
Symptoms of flu, COVID-19 and RSV usually mimic the common cold — fever, sore throat, runny nose, chills, fatigue and body aches — but can become a severe infection for some individuals. Flu and COVID-19 are not distinguishable by the symptoms alone. Both also can cause mild to severe illness, including death in vulnerable individuals.
RSV can often cause wheezing and difficulty breathing. Most RSV cases in healthy adults clear up after one to two weeks.
COVID-19, flu and RSV can be transmitted through droplets in the air. RSV and flu mainly spread when a person coughs or sneezes but can also spread when a person touches a surface that has the virus on it and then touches their face before washing their hands.
Individuals should follow best practices to prevent all three respiratory illnesses, including:
· Wash your hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds or use alcohol-based hand rub. Make sure to clean between your fingers and around your wrists. Sing the chorus of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” as you wash your hands.
· Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches the eyes, nose or mouth.
· Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue, or the bend of your elbow, not your hands. Use the nearest waste receptacle to dispose of the tissue after use.
· Avoid contact with individuals who are sick, when possible.
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