The big winter worry used to be flu, but since the pandemic, flu has a few friends that, together, are causing more illness and busy times at hospitals and doctors’ offices during the cold months.
These friends are COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.
Good news: New and updated RSV and COVID-19 vaccines, as well as an RSV antibody are available.
Vaccines are considered a top defense against these winter illnesses.
Updated COVID-19 vaccine is widely available
“We are still understanding seasonal patterns of COVID-19, but we know it’s here and not going away, said Connie Park, MD, Kaiser Permanente Northern California clinical lead for the Regional Flu Program who is also overseeing the COVID-19 vaccine program. “We need to learn to live with it.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending everyone 6 months and older get an updated COVID-19 vaccine, which is well matched with the circulating strains. (The strains have changed since the vaccines were updated but the current strains come from the same lineage.)
Because protection provided by the vaccine and natural immunity wear off, experts say people should get the updated vaccine to have as much protection as possible.
As a result of authorizing and approving an updated vaccine for emergency use, the Food and Drug Administration has no longer authorized the previous version of the vaccine, called the bivalent mRNA vaccine. Kaiser Permanente is now only administering the updated one.
Kaiser Permanente members can get a COVID-19 shot at no cost by walking into many Northern California flu clinics. Clinics at Richmond and Oakland medical centers, for instance, have administered 13,533 COVID-19 vaccinations from September 27 to October 10, or an average of 1,230 per day.
“It’s helpful, and easy and convenient to get the flu and COVID vaccines together,” Dr. Park said.
The COVID-19 vaccine may be morphing into an annual shot akin to the flu vaccine. Like the flu vaccine, the vaccine against COVID-19 has been proven to be safe and effective in preventing serious illness and death.
Kaiser Permanente member Vilay Luangrath, 72, of El Sobrante, has not yet had the virus and he wants to keep it that way.
“Every time they have a new vaccine for COVID, I get it, because it protects me.”
Erin Radourn of Richmond, also has not been infected with COVID-19, and said she saw how awful the virus was when it ran through her home in August.
“That’s why I get the shots,” said Radourn, who has gotten the COVID-19 vaccine five times. “I also don’t want to get long COVID. That’s scary.”
People who have had a recent COVID-19 infection can delay their COVID-19 vaccine up to three months, but they might consider getting it sooner if they are vulnerable or around people who are. They can get it as soon as they recover from their infection, Dr. Park said.
Protection against RSV
The third virus expected to wreak havoc this winter is RSV. It’s not new but it caused more illness last season than it typically does.
RSV is a common cold for most, but it can cause a serious respiratory illness for the very young and old.
There is protection this season: a new vaccine for those 60 and older, and a new monoclonal antibody for babies, 8 months and younger as well as children between 8 and 19 months old who are considered high-risk for serious illness. Women who are 32 to 36 weeks pregnant can also get an RSV shot.
Members can get a vaccine or antibody after a conversation with their doctors. They are not available at the flu clinics.
Dr. Park said the community is lucky to have new tools to fight the trio of winter illnesses.
“We do expect to see a spike this winter, and it will impact hospitals,” Park said. “Vaccines are the best way to protect ourselves and our community.”
Read more information about the COVID-19 vaccine.
Doug Oakley contributed to this report.