With the end of summer, it's a busy time in the world of vaccines and respiratory illness. There's a new COVID-19 booster, plus annual flu shots and new guidance for RSV.
Dr. Rosha McCoy, Senior Director for advancing clinical leadership and quality at the Association of American Medical Colleges, is a pediatrician. She spoke with WAMC's Ian Pickus.
What is RSV? And what should people be doing to prevent it?
Sure. Well, respiratory syncytial virus is the term and it's a very common virus that causes cold-like symptoms in many adults, but in little children, young children, it can cause very serious respiratory illness with cough and wheezing and breathing problems. Similarly, it is a cause of breathing problems and pneumonia in older adults as well. So the prevention is twofold. For young children, for infants under the age of eight months, if it's their first RSV season, there's a preventative treatment. It's an antibody treatment that's given, and so those with infants should talk to their pediatrician or pediatric provider. For those over the age of 60 there's a vaccine, there are actually two different companies that are making it. So those over the age of 60 should seriously also consider getting a vaccine, which is a little different from the treatment for the incidence.
Is RSV more common than it once was or are we just paying better attention now?
I think it's just that we're paying better attention and as the science evolves, we're able to offer these vaccines and preventative treatments. So it's really an exciting time and prevention of illness, and it's really looking at what are the causes of hospitalization and serious illness. I think the other thing is, there is the risk that somebody could get COVID and RSV at the same time, which could really make it even more serious. So that is the new part of things. It's not that RSV is getting any more common, it's just that we have also COVID and flu to consider at the same time.
What happens if you do come down with RSV and COVID-19 at the same time? Does it make the symptoms of either or both more severe?
Yeah, it can, that's what our concern is. I don't know if you remember, last year there was a lot of concern of having flu and COVID at the same time, and certainly RSV as well. So really trying, as we are now dealing with the COVID infections, really trying to prevent these illnesses, so that people don't get one, two or even three at the same time.
What's your advice about the new COVID-19 booster? I know that in general, people have not stayed current on the COVID series. I think for a lot of people this would be the fourth or fifth shot already, so what should people do?
Yeah, it's the updated COVID-19 vaccine, and it's really targeting the most common variant in the United States in the world at this point. So we recommend that anybody over the age of six months should get the updated COVID-19 vaccine. Really, I think most people know someone or themselves have gotten COVID, we're definitely seeing cases go up, hospitalizations go up. There’s no reason for that now that we have the updated vaccine, we really need to use the vaccines and the treatments that we have available to try to prevent people from getting very sick.
What would you say to someone who says ‘Well, I've had it once or twice, I got the shots when they were new, but the pandemic is over now, and I don't think I need this.’?
Yeah, I do agree that the pandemic is probably over, but the COVID-19 is still here. And we really don't know who is going to get seriously ill with the COVID-19 infection. It is a little bit unpredictable. We know that it's more serious in older adults, we know it's more serious in immunocompromised, but young healthy people can get very sick from COVID-19 as well. And multiple infections with COVID-19 seems to put you a little bit more at risk for what we call long-haul COVID which is persistent symptoms from having gotten COVID-19. For some people that have been very debilitating, and the vaccine does seem to decrease the chances of that happening.
Do you worry that we will see a big spike in the number of cases as we did in previous winters with COVID?
We could. I mean, we're already seeing a significant spike in the number of cases and hospitalizations have definitely gone up. So if people don't get the vaccine and we head into the winter months when people are more inside, and respiratory infections are more common, then we could see a real spike in very serious illness and hospitalizations.
What about the flu? How does the flu strain this year look to you?
Yeah, I think the vaccine seems to have been very effective in the southern hemisphere, some places in the southern hemisphere. So we think about winter in the southern hemisphere, it happens at a different time than here, so they see the flu before we do. Some places have reported a pretty serious flu season. So (it’s) really important to get the flu vaccine to try to prevent from getting very ill with the flu as well, and the fact that you don't want to get both COVID and the flu at the same time.
You're a pediatrician. Is the flu shot the same for adults and children?
It's similar. If you're under the age of 8 and it's your first flu shot, you will need two. So it is a little bit different and the dosing is a little bit different, but generally it's the same timing, etc.
Just one more thing. In your practice, have you seen people willing to get vaccines, have you seen the number of people who are staying current drop off, given the national vaccine wars of the last few years?
Yeah, there is some concern that some of the politicization of vaccines is causing people to become more skeptical and hesitant of routine childhood vaccinations, many of whom that we've had for many, many years and other reasons. we're not seeing injections like diptheria and whooping cough and measles and mumps, and we've seen some spikes and measles and mumps and people don't get vaccinated around the country. So we are seeing some resurgence of some illnesses that are vaccine-preventable, so it's really important for people to refocus on the fact that vaccines have been so life-changing throughout human history and really realize the benefit of vaccines.