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Navigating the respiratory illnesses — including COVID — going around post-holidays


If it feels like everyone around you is coughing and sniffling, or if your own nose is running, that is because it is full-on respiratory virus season here in the U.S., and flu and COVID are expected to rise now after the holidays. NPR's Pien Huang has the outlook and some tips for protecting yourself over the next few weeks.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: In the state of Kentucky, the respiratory illness levels are currently high. Dr. Steven Stack is the state health commissioner.

STEVEN STACK: The influenza virus is the thing that's really skyrocketing right now. So influenza is sharply escalating, and that's driving more hospitalizations.

HUANG: Dr. Stack would like to see more people get vaccinated. He says less than 50% of Kentuckians have gotten their flu shot this season. Still, that's better than the 10% vaccination rate for the COVID booster in Kentucky, even though COVID remains the bigger danger. Stack says dozens of Kentuckians are dying each month because of it.

STACK: So everybody who is certainly elderly - and not even old elderly, like young elderly, 60 and older - should go out and get a vaccine for a booster for COVID.

HUANG: To be clear, Stack recommends a COVID booster to anyone 6 months and up that didn't get it this season. And he says there's still a place for masks, especially for older people who are more likely to get very sick from COVID. The situation in Kentucky looks a lot like what's happening nationally. When it comes to the top three respiratory viruses that health officials are worried about, RSV seems to have plateaued or peaked, COVID is elevated and expected to rise, and flu has been coming in hot. Marlene Wolfe, an epidemiologist at Emory University, says the pacing this year is a little different.

MARLENE WOLFE: Last year, RSV and flu really took off right at the same time, along with COVID, and all three of those together were pretty nasty. And this year, it appears that there's a bit more of an offset.

HUANG: That's been good so far for hospital capacity, which has been pretty stable. That means people who are quite ill and need medical care are generally able to get it. Some hospitals in different parts of the country, from Massachusetts to Illinois to California, are starting to require masks for staff again and, in some cases, for patients and visitors. Dr. Mandy Cohen, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says people who are feverish and sneezing and coughing should stay home and watch their symptoms.

MANDY COHEN: I think there is a difference between a bit of a runny nose and a light cough and body aches, fever, difficulty moving through your day. Some of those things are what should trigger you to go get tested.

HUANG: And the reason to get tested is that if you are in the early stages of COVID or flu and at risk of getting worse, there are prescription pills that can reduce your chances of ending up in the hospital. Flu and COVID vaccines, tests and treatments should be covered by health insurance. For those who are uninsured, the government is also offering a program called Test to Treat, which offers free tests, free telehealth appointments and free treatments at home. Dr. Cohen from the CDC says people can protect themselves over the next few weeks by staying aware.

COHEN: So you want to know what's happening in your community. Is there a lot of virus circulating? And then what are the tools that I could layer on to protect myself, depending on who I am, my age, my risk, as well as who I'm around?

HUANG: The CDC has maps down to the county level that they update weekly on their website. Cohen says there are many things available to help. Now it's up to people to make good use of them. Pien Huang, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEX VAUGHN SONG, "SO BE IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.