With the winter months and cold weather approaching, and the holiday season around the corner, health officials are sounding the alarm about a so-called "triple threat" of respiratory viruses: COVID-19, influenza and RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus).
But the Biden administration's COVID czar says that Americans already have access to the best tool to keep them safe from flu and the coronavirus: Vaccines.
"The goal here is to keep people healthy and make sure that people have good safe holidays that don't end up in the hospital," White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator, Dr. Ashish Jha said in an interview. "And the very best way to do that, certainly getting the flu shot is critically important."
Dr. Jha spoke to Spectrum News the same day that President Joe Biden got an updated COVID-19 booster, which targets both the original coronavirus strain and the dominant omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5. Bivalent boosters are available for Americans five years of age and older who have completed their first vaccine course.
President Biden tested positive for COVID-19 more than three months ago, the amount of time public health experts recommend waiting before getting a booster shot. He received his second booster shot in March of this year.
Dr. Jha said that the bivalent vaccines are "brand new" and "designed to target the virus that's circulating out there," encouraging all Americans to get an updated booster to provide extra protection against the coronavirus.
"If if you got a booster nine months ago, or if you got infected a year ago, that will not provide the level of protection you need this fall and winter," Jha added.
"Everybody benefits from these vaccines," he said, calling vaccination "particularly important for older seniors."
"It's critical that [seniors] go out and get these vaccines," Dr. Jha added. "It's the best way of making sure they don't end up getting really sick. They don't end up in the hospital."
"I expect that people are going to have a great holiday season and good Thanksgiving, but you can protect yourself by going out and getting the new COVID vaccine, getting that flu vaccine," he said. "Those two things are the two most important things Americans can do to protect themselves and their families into the holiday season."
Health officials have urged Americans to bolster their protections against respiratory illnesses amid fears of a possible winter COVID-19 surge, a potentially severe flu season and an early surge of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cases, particularly in children.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that represent only 9% of the population, there were more than 7,300 RSV cases the week of Oct. 15, more than double from a month earlier and the most seen in two years.
Dr. Jha acknowledged that such a rise at the same time is "concerning."
"It is concerning to see three respiratory viruses, all of which are very contagious, all of which are rising at the same time. We've got COVID, we've got the flu and we've got RSV," adding: "The good news here, is we're not powerless, right? We actually have a lot of control here."
"We've got terrific vaccines against two of these three viruses, both flu and COVID," Dr. Jha continued. "If people get those vaccines, we're able to keep hospital burden much much lower, obviously prevent serious illness."
Dr. Jha said that while there is no vaccine for RSV – "That's being worked on, scientists are working on that," he told Spectrum News – it's a very common illness, with most people experiencing "minor cold-like symptoms."
The trouble, he says, is with older adults and young children. Dr. Jha said it's critical to ensure "there's plenty of hospital capacity to take care of people."
To help prevent RSV, Dr. Jha recommends taking "basic respiratory precautions," like avoiding contact with people who are sick, keeping sick children at home and washing your hands.
When asked if it's recommended to get the flu vaccine and COVID-19 booster at the same time, Jha said, "It's totally fine to get them at the same time."
He said he got both shots on the "same day and same arm" and that the only downside was that his "arm was a little sore for about 24 hours."
"Your immune system could definitely handle it, and can manage both of those vaccines and it's just convenient. It's a one-and-done," Jha added.