Armed with updated vaccines, the health care community is better equipped for the coming three-pronged viral assault of COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.
In theory, that is.
With regulatory agencies signing off on updated COVID-19 vaccines, which address the still-dominant iteration of the Omicron variant, as well as a new vaccine that protects against RSV infections and the usual vaccine revisions for the seasonal flu, eligible individuals have more potential to help fend off the so-called “tripledemic.”
But, as a local infectious disease expert points out, patients still have to be willing to roll up their sleeves to protect themselves and the community against the trio of viruses that circulated last fall and winter in high numbers — less of an anomaly than a new reality in the eyes of health officials.
Dr. Suraj Saggar, chief of the Department of Infectious Disease at Holy Name, said the vaccines available for fall and winter’s three major respiratory viruses aren’t all arriving in one jab. They’re administered separately, and, for some, might require separate appointments.
It’s hard for him to predict whether that will lead to lower compliance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, but it’s a concern.
“Human nature is such that, if you have one annual vaccine a year, let’s say the influenza shot — which we’ve had increasing compliance of over time, even if it’s not a perfect number — once you start introducing other options, people get that one vaccine and plan to come back in another week for the next, but never do,” he said. “So, it’s important for us to constantly educate, promote and facilitate the availability of these vaccines so all Americans can stay healthy during this upcoming virus season.”
Along with the practical challenges of getting all eligible individuals to schedule an appointment and show up, there are hurdles that remain in the form of vaccine hesitancy.
Just shy of three years after the first COVID-19 vaccine was administered outside a clinical trial, that skepticism has proved difficult for the medical community to overcome.
“What I can do, as well as my colleagues, is continue to promote these vaccines in a way that’s based on science and not fear,” Saggar said. “We knew during the COVID-19 pandemic there was an ‘infodemic’ of misinformation as well. And we have to continue to combat that. We know some of these efforts have been politicized, but we have to do our best to stay away from the noise and only focus on science and educating patients to promote wellness and safety.”
Health care organizations have come up with novel ways (including after-hours pharmacy appointments, vaccine fairs and digital reminders) to make vaccinations convenient.
Regardless, compliance with the COVID-19 vaccine recommendations has fallen off. CDC numbers point to only about 17% of the country’s population being up-to-date on their boosters.
Saggar, who prefers these be thought of now as annual vaccines versus booster shots, said a large portion of the population has had either the primary vaccines or the infection itself. That’s fed a new confidence about an individual’s vulnerability to contracting this illness.
“But, what’s clear is that, as the virus keeps mutating — and while, at this time, it’s not becoming more virulent — it still causes infections,” he said. “In the hospital and outpatient setting, most of those have been mild to moderate illnesses, but they’re still disruptive. And they can become severe in the most vulnerable populations.”
So, for those who want to be up-to-date on vaccines in the way health officials would like … what’s the best way to go about it?
Saggar said shots targeting the XBB-lineage of the Omicron COVID-19 variant are being rolled out now, and that a wide range of doctors’ offices, pharmacies and clinics should soon have them — if they don’t already.
That vaccine is something virtually all individuals age 6 months and up are eligible for. As is the seasonal flu vaccine, which Saggar said individuals can elect to get either at the same time or separately. Ultimately, that decision is mostly based on comfort levels with the slight reactions, such as muscle aches and low-grade fevers, that can accompany the vaccines in some people.
The ideal timing for that, in his view, would be the beginning of October.
“You don’t want to get something like the flu vaccine too early because there’s a risk of immunity running out when you still need protection,” he said. “And you don’t want people running out to get it in December when people are getting sick because of the time it takes to build immunity.”
Both vaccines take around two weeks for their protective effects to be fully realized.
The RSV jab is recommended for a smaller subset of patients. The vaccine, which reportedly reduces the effects of serious complications by upwards of 80%, is meant for those who tend to experience those complications: those 60 years or older and newborns. Pregnant women may also be eligible to receive the vaccine, which is given in a single dose.
“The most important thing to do is to talk to your physician about the best way to go about getting these vaccines,” Saggar said. “And (with getting them), people should feel confident they’re doing everything they can to protect the health of themselves and their loved ones.”