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Vaccinations offer health officials best preparation for respiratory illness season

Peoria Public Radio/Kristin McHugh
The University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria building, where local health officials prepare for the incoming flu season.

You may have heard the term "tripledemic" around this time last year. The term refers to a seasonal combination of Influenza, COVID and Respiratory Syncytial Virus, or RSV.

This year, area health officials say there’s more precautionary measures people can take to prepare for the fall wave of respiratory infections.

Peoria City/County Health Department Public Health Administrator Monica Hendrickson said most people don’t seek medical attention when they have any of the three big respiratory illnesses. They simply take a few days off work and recover at home.

But, without any precautions, unmitigated spread presents some issues.

“When you have these three circulating viruses moving around, it can be very scary,” Hendrickson said. “Not only for high-risk individuals, but overall, just the population that we see. And looking at, kind of, what we’ve done in the past few years, which has been great protective measures, but has kind of changed our exposure type to certain things.”

Hendrickson said vaccinations are the most important among those preventative measures. Vaccines for all three of the viruses mentioned are expected to be available from pharmacies and doctors, including one for RSV.

Hendrickson said people over age 60, babies and pregnant people will be eligible.

“Seeing kids with RSV, you can see it can really become exponentially worse,” she said. “Where there’s hospitalizations because of their ability to take in oxygen and even the long term impacts of RSV. So this is a new thing on the market that we’re all very, very excited about.”

On the COVID side of the season, the Food and Drug Administration announced the authorization of new "updated" vaccines Monday. The Centers for Disease Control went on to vote to authorize a broad recommendation for the vaccine: anyone 6 months or older is eligible.

Dr. Douglas Kasper, section head of infectious disease for the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria, said the new shot represents a change in the way officials approach COVID prevention.

“The CDC wants us to be clear not to call it a booster anymore,” he said. “Our approach to dealing with the fall months in the Midwest is a little different.”

With the "seasonal" nature of the new vaccine in mind, your previous COVID vaccination status won't factor into your eligibility for the new shot.

COVID numbers are expected to hit just 10% of what area hospitals saw during the peak of the pandemic. Kasper said preventative measures are mostly focused on helping people avoid long term health effects.

“So what we're seeing more is that people that had some issue with their physiology, whether they had, let’s say they had COPD or a history of heart disease, or a history of cancer,” he said. “Those long effects seem to exacerbate the underlying issue.”

For example, the patient with COPD may have a slower recovery, or no recovery at all, from future infections targeting their lungs. A wide array of lingering symptoms are currently lumped together into the blanket term "long COVID."

Kasper said, with these risks in mind, it's important to make a plan.

“We encourage people to discuss those with their medical provider,” he said. “It’s not advisable to wait until somebody becomes sick and then try to treat your way out of it. We would prefer, especially if you're at high risk, for them to have maximal vaccination going into their potential exposure.”

Both Kasper and Hendrickson agree, there are multiple reasons to get this done sooner rather than later. Kasper said we're coming up on colder weather. That means people will be closer to each other indoors.

Hendrickson said although people may have gotten used to the wide variety of vaccination options available throughout the pandemic, this season will look a little different. With the end of the federal emergency declaration in May, events like the large public vaccination clinics we saw won't be happening anymore.

“So you don’t necessarily have to come back to the health department for your COVID vaccine,” Hendrickson said. “We will definitely have some and will have appointments. But the model of how we’ll be issuing or giving out this vaccine is really going to fall in line with how Influenza is done.”

Of course, flu shots will be available through doctors and pharmacies like normal. Officials say the updated COVID vaccines could be in the hands of health care providers as early as next week.

Hendrickson said officials are closely monitoring the data set to come out of this flu season. One data point is the movement of COVID itself. How will it transmit through the population when it's treated more like the flu?

“I think there’s also kind of the anthropological kind of thought process,” Hendrickson said. “How people are behaving with each other, right? Now that you’ve gone through these three years where you’ve seen the importance of isolation and quarantine and testing, are you taking that into consideration?”

At the end of the season, Hendrickson expects a data set that tells us more about how to live with COVID as an endemic virus, rather than in the midst of a pandemic.

Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.