Summer ends, season of respiratory illness begins
New vaccines, virus updates
By Eileen Persike
RHINELANDER – Labor Day signals the traditional end of summer. Kids heading back to school in the fall can often mean the beginning of runny noses, sore throats, coughs, colds and other viruses. With COVID and RSV on the list of those “other” viruses, the Oneida County Health Department is transitioning to new, broader terminology.
“We will now be referring to ‘flu season’ as respiratory illness season, as the illnesses seen encompass more than just the flu,” said OCHD public health nurse Melissa Bryner. “We are now seeing COVID, pneumonia, and RSV during the same time as flu.”
OCHD and healthcare professionals around the state are encouraging people to use the hygiene practices they learned during the pandemic to prevent illness.
“Including properly washing your hands, covering your mouth and nose, when coughing or sneezing, avoid touching your eyes, nose, mouth or face, clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, stay at home if you are feeling sick, and stay up to date with your current vaccines,” Bryner said.
Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Chief Medical Officer of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services Bureau of Communicable Diseases, met with reporters last week to talk about preventing COVID and other infectious diseases.
“I think life has returned to normal, but there is a viral threat of respiratory disease that we didn’t have five years ago so the new normal is to treat [COVID] as one of the things that can make us sick and to use the tools available to help prevent disease.”
Westergaard said getting vaccinated is the most important tool. An updated COVID vaccine developed to specifically target the Omicron variants currently circulating will be available, he said, in October.
“Learning how to prevent and thinking about how to prevent the spread of cold, flu and COVID during the winter months when people are inside has always been and remain important strategies,” Westergaard said. “So people should probably still consider or feel comfortable wearing masks if they are in a crowded indoor setting if there is a lot of cold, flu and COVID going around in their community, but we’re definitely past the age where that will be required or enforced in most places.”
County has been seeing a rise in levels of COVID-19 recently. In some areas of the state – five of the seven healthcare emergency readiness coalitions (HERCs) – are showing “significant increase” in COVID-related hospitalizations over the past several weeks. But those numbers, said Westergaard, are at a low level compared to earlier in the pandemic.
In addition to using hospitalizations as an indicator of COVID levels, health professionals are beginning to use wastewater surveillance as an increasingly reliable way to get information about the level of spread in a community. People who have COVID can shed the virus in their feces, even if they do not have symptoms.
The infrastructure and laboratory techniques for using wastewater testing were developed during the pandemic. How it works is samples of wastewater from municipal sewage treatment facilities around the state are collected and sent to a lab where the amount of the virus RNA is in the specimen by volume.
When this process is done in a standardized way, Westergaard explained, trends can be seen that reflect a broad sample of the community that doesn’t rely on people reporting test results. It’s a process that could be used in the future for other infectious diseases such as flu and RSV.
“COVID has never stopped continuing to spread, but we have seen in the same ways that flu and colds increase in fall and winter; we’re already seeing an increase,” Westergaard said. “It would not be surprising to see more infections in the weeks and months ahead.”
New this fall are two RSV vaccines approved by the FDA. RSV is a respiratory virus that can cause particularly severe disease in newborns and in older people. It is the number one cause of hospitalization of infants in the United States and causes a significant number of infant deaths each year, especially those born prematurely, Westergaard said.
The two RSV vaccines have been approved for use in adults age 60 and over who have high risk factors. One of those has been approved for women in late pregnancy to reduce the risk of severe disease in both the mother and the newborn. These new recommendations, Westergaard said, is “another example” of using the tools available to fight respiratory disease.
OCHD will be holding flu shot clinics in the middle to end of September; more information can be found at oneidacountypublichealth.org. Anyone with questions on the types of vaccines carried by OCHD, personal qualifications for vaccines, or for scheduling an appointment, call 715-369-6111.