With New Hampshire’s hospitals starting to fill with COVID-19 patients, there’s no longer any question that an autumn surge has begun yet again. And if that’s not enough, it looks like flu season will return in force following a two-year lull.
“Many of us can’t bear the notion that we’re still in these battles, still in these trenches, but we certainly are,” said Dr. Elizabeth Talbot, an infectious disease specialist affiliated with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. “We’re going to be fighting on two fronts. … We need to find that courage, need to find that strength, to keep going on.”
Talbot spoke Thursday during a webinar held by a new group called GoTruthNH, which formed to push back against all the misinformation about vaccines and other medical practices. They’re holding regular webinars; check the site (gotruthnh.com) to learn more.
I’m pessimistic about the ability of facts and logic to convince those who have climbed aboard the antivax bandwagon but it’s worth a shot. If nothing else, maybe GoTruthNH can keep some undecided folks from becoming deluded.
The webinar, which also featured state epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan, taught me a couple things.
One is that COVID’s likely transition into a seasonal respiratory problem like the flu is the reason that there’s no push to require COVID vaccines to attend public school.
Dr. Chan noted that required school vaccines like TDAP (tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis or whooping cough) provide lifetime or long-term protection against diseases from a single shot or short series of shots. COVID’s continuing ability to produce new variants and sub-variants makes it likely that eventually they’ll be rolling out a reformulated COVID vaccine each fall just as they do with the flu, and for better or worse we’ve never required flu vaccines to attend school.
Another thing I learned is that the recommended pause before getting the latest booster – wait three months after your last COVID vaccine and two months after getting COVID – isn’t a safety issue. Getting an early booster won’t overload our immune system or do anything bad. The wait is suggested only to maximize the length of time that we have the best immune response.
“It’s not because it’s dangerous to (get the booster sooner), it’s because it may be unnecessary,” said Dr. Talbot. “If it’s convenient to get the booster even if you’ve just finished having COVID, because you’re going to do something high risk like having holiday events, go ahead.”
That includes people who are having preventative treatment such as monoclonal antibodies or taking antivirals like Paxlovid to battle symptoms.
As for the autumn surge, the COVID numbers are clear. After a summer-long lull, the number of people hospitalized with variants and sub-variants of the SARS-CoV2 virus has almost doubled in the past three weeks. As of Friday it was higher than at any point since February.
Still, that doesn’t mean we’re doomed to repeat winter 2021, when more than 450 people were hospitalized with COVID at one point. “We have more tools at our disposal now … than we had then, or in 2020,” said Dr. Chan, discussing the treatments that have been developed.
And the booster, of course, which might not keep you from getting COVID but can, as Dr. Talbot put it, be the difference between “having a few sniffles vs. being on a ventilator.”
As for the flu, it doesn’t seem to have hit us yet – the weekly influenza activity report from the Department of Health and Human Services categorizes it as “sporadic” – but Dr. Chan noted that it has been bad south of the equator, often an indication of how things will soon be up here.
“The southern hemisphere flu season is our summer season. They saw very high levels of flu,” he said.
Down there as up here, influenza has been mild for the past two seasons because of all the efforts we’ve made to avoid spreading COVID. As a result, everybody’s natural flu immunity might be weaker than usual.
As has been noted before, our two-year respite from flu shows that all the COVID habits we’ve gotten sick of doing – washing hands, social distancing, mask-wearing in public – work really well. If nothing else, the return of flu is another reason to keep it up.