Last fall we saw many respiratory virus infections and hospitalizations, including SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and influenza virus (flu). We anticipate an increase in respiratory viral activity in the coming months, especially as kids are back in school, people gather indoors as weather cools down, and people travel for the holidays. This fall, we want to look at what to expect when it comes to respiratory viruses and some prevention steps you can take.
Preventing illness from all three viruses
COVID-19, flu, and RSV are all caused by different viruses. But they spread in very similar ways, which is why they are all called ‘respiratory viruses.’ When someone who is infected with these viruses talks, coughs, breathes or sneezes, tiny droplets of virus spread into the air and on surfaces. When other people breathe in the virus or touch surfaces with the virus on it, they can get sick. The more virus someone is exposed to, the more likely they are to get sick. Because these viruses all spread in similar ways, steps you can take to protect against one can help reduce the risk of other viruses.
Here are some tips to help prevent spreading and catching respiratory viruses:
- Wear a high-quality, well-fitting facemask (such as an N95 or KN95) in crowded areas and indoor public spaces.
- Improve indoor ventilation by opening windows and doors and using air filtration devices.
- Get tested promptly if you have symptoms and get treatment early if you’re eligible (you can order free home COVID-19 tests from the federal government).
- If you’re sick, stay home and away from others, especially away from people who may be at high risk for severe disease. While you might experience mild symptoms, a respiratory viral infection can be a serious illness for small children, older people, pregnant people, and people with chronic conditions, such as compromised immune systems.
Get vaccinated to protect yourself from severe illness
Vaccinations are the best way to help protect yourself from serious illness from flu, COVID or RSV, and, in some cases, from long-term debilitating complications, like long COVID. The 2023-2024 respiratory viral season marks the first time there are immunizations for COVID-19, flu and RSV.
COVID-19: An updated COVID-19 vaccine is now available and is recommended for everyone aged 6 months and older. To find a vaccine appointment, go to www.vaccines.gov
Flu: A seasonal flu vaccine is recommended for everyone 6 months and older.
RSV: there are several immunizations available to protect people at high-risk for serious illness from RSV:
- An RSV vaccine is available for people 60 years and older. Ask your pharmacist or medical provider whether it’s right for you.
- An RSV vaccine is also available for pregnant people between 32-36 weeks of pregnancy. The protections pass from the pregnant person to the baby, which helps protect newborns who are at high risk for severe disease.
- An RSV immunization (monoclonal antibody) is now available for infants younger than 8 months and young children aged 8-19 months at increased risk for severe disease. Talk to your doctor
For families with school-age children, staying up to date on all recommended vaccinations is one of the most important ways to keep children safer.
Where to get vaccinated
- Visit your healthcare provider or a nearby pharmacy. Most pharmacies offer vaccinations for people ages three years and older. Make sure the provider or pharmacy are in-network with your insurance company so you don’t end up being charged out of pocket fees.
- Use this map to find a healthcare provider that vaccinates uninsured children and adults.
- To find a COVID-19 vaccination appointment near you, visit: Vaccines.gov – Find COVID19 vaccine locations near you
- CDC’s Bridge Access Program provides no-cost COVID-19 vaccines to adults without health insurance and adults whose insurance does not cover all COVID-19 vaccine costs. No-cost COVID-19 vaccines through this program will be available until December 31, 2024. For more information go to: Program Overview: CDC’s Bridge Access Program
- For more information about vaccination opportunities, visit: kingcounty.gov/findaclinic
Current rates of COVID-19, RSV and flu
Since August, we have seen increases in COVID-19 activity in King County, including more COVID-19 emergency department visits and hospitalizations, although these rates of COVID-19 are lower than what we saw at the height of the Delta and early Omicron phases. Recent RSV and flu activity remain low at this time, but infections start to increase as we head into the fall and winter seasons. We’re watching the data closely through our respiratory virus data dashboard.
Respiratory virus data dashboard
Public Health created a comprehensive respiratory data dashboard to track the trends of COVID-19, RSV, flu and other respiratory viruses. The dashboard includes data from emergency department visits, laboratory test results, flu deaths, and flu outbreaks in long-term care facilities. These data points help us track the changes in virus activity in the community. The dashboard may also be a useful tool for healthcare providers to monitor the prevalence of respiratory viruses and to inform strategies to reduce the risk and severe outcomes of respiratory viral infections.
Originally published October 6, 2023.