Wearing a face covering during upcoming holiday gatherings may be a good idea, according to local health experts, as the flu, COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses are coming on strong this winter season.
The Turlock Journal talked with Stanislaus County Public Health Officer Dr. Thea Papasozomenos and Emanuel Medical Center CEO Dr. Murali Naidu about the current flu and COVID outlook and what individuals and families could do to avoid getting sick this winter.
“We’re certainly seeing a lot of emergency room visits in Stanislaus County for flu and COVID,” said Papasozomenos.
The predominate flu strain is Influenza A H3N2, according to the health officer.
“Seasons where this strain — H3N2 — predominate tend to be more severe. So, admissions to hospitals for flu are higher than any pre-pandemic flu season, except for 2017-2018, which was another flu season where H3N2 predominated,” she said.
“The good news is that it’s thought that this particular strain is a good match for the strain of flu that is in the vaccine this season,” said Papasozomenos.
There is still COVID-19 circulating and, according to Papasozomenos, it is mainly the Omicron variant. From Oct. 12-Dec. 6 there were 10,790,192 cases of COVID-19 reported in California. There were 97,199 deaths due to COVID-19 in the state from Sept. 27 through Nov. 21. In Stanislaus County, there were 88 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the past seven days.
This more severe flu strain is already being felt at Emanuel’s emergency room.
“We’re seeing exactly what Dr. Papa suggested. We’re seeing a lot of respiratory illnesses…severity is one piece of it but there are so many things — influenza, RSV, COVID, rhinovirus, parainfluenza virus — that it’s causing the number of people who need to seek care go up. And while all the hospitals are seeing a similar effect and are managing it, it is one of those things people need to be thoughtful about. We want them to enjoy the holidays and not be sick. We’re happy to take care of them, but we don’t want them landing in the emergency room, because that means they’re not celebrating with their families,” said Naidu.
Despite the increase in people seeking emergency room care for respiratory illnesses, Naidu said that there is not a shortage of ventilators or ICU rooms, as was seen during the height of the pandemic.
Both Papasozomenos and Naidu said the best way to avoid a hospital visit is to get vaccinated, both for the flu and COVID-19, and stay away from those who are sick. But they don’t recommend canceling all holiday celebrations.
“Over the course of the pandemic, people have suffered socially. They'd been separated from their loved ones, and of course, we're all eager to return to a sense of normalcy. That being said, there are a lot of precautions we can take to make sure the holiday season is as safe as it can be. That does mean getting the vaccines that are available to us, the flu vaccine, making sure we're up to date with the (COVID) booster…Also making sure we take necessary precautions. You know, if we're sick trying to avoid these sorts of gatherings so we don't go and interact with our loved ones,” said Papasozomenos.
According to Papasozomenos, Stanislaus County is right now in the Centers for Disease and Control’s COVID-19 Community Level Medium, which encourages those at high-risk of getting sick or have contact with a high-risk individual to wear a face mask while indoors.
She also recommended getting tested if you feel sick. There is a COVID-19 and flu testing center in Turlock, open from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday at the Rube Boesch Center, 275 N. Orange St. For an appointment, call (888) 634-1123.