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What to know about the fears of a 'tripledemic' this holiday season

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Thanksgiving appears to have jump-started a new surge of COVID. The pandemic is still out there, along with the flu and RSV. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has been tracking what is often known as the tripledemic (ph). Hey there, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey there, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, so I was thinking about you covering this story because there was recently some coughing in my house, kept somebody home from school. Now, everybody's negative on the COVID tests, but clearly stuff is out there. How bad is it looking?

STEIN: Oh, yeah. Well, you know, it's not great. I'm sorry people aren't feeling well in your household. But it's not surprising.

INSKEEP: We're better now, but go on. Go on.

STEIN: Oh, good, oh, good, oh, good. Well, you know, RSV has been surging for weeks, sending lots of babies and other young children home from school and even into emergency rooms and intensive care units. And now, after getting off to an early start too, this year's flu season is clearly going full-bore. If you look at the CDC's map of the country, most of it is on fire with the flu. Flu hospitalizations doubled in just one week and are at the highest they've been this time of year in a decade. Here's how CDC director Rochelle Walensky put it during a briefing yesterday.

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ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Levels of flu-like illness, which includes people going to the doctor with a fever and a cough or sore throat, are at either high or very high levels in 47 jurisdictions, and that is up from 36 jurisdictions just last week.

STEIN: Nearly 9 million flu cases, 70,000 flu hospitalizations and 4,500 flu deaths have already been reported so far this year, including 14 deaths among children. And now COVID looks like it's surging, too.

INSKEEP: How bad is it?

STEIN: Well, you know, the virus has been out there spreading pretty steadily for a while, infecting tens of thousands and killing hundreds every day. But now, Dr. Walensky says all those Thanksgiving gatherings appear to have started to push the numbers up again.

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WALENSKY: In the past week, we have started to see the unfortunate and expected rise of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations nationally after the Thanksgiving holiday.

STEIN: Walensky says COVID hospitalizations jumped 15 to 20% in just a week, raising fears that deaths could start rising, too. Now, the bit of good news is that RSV may have started peaking, and no one thinks this third pandemic winter will get anywhere near as bad as the last two in terms of COVID.

INSKEEP: Good.

STEIN: Most people still have enough immunity from vaccinations and infections to keep them from getting really sick.

INSKEEP: Although we're getting into those cold months when people are indoors a lot more. What could happen?

STEIN: Right. You know, the problem is most people have given up doing all the things that could keep all those holiday travel and gatherings from acting like superspreader events. Here's how Dr. Sandra Fryhofer from the American Medical Association put it during yesterday's briefing.

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SANDRA FRYHOFER: Flu's here. It started early. And with COVID and RSV also circulating, it's a perfect storm for a terrible holiday season.

STEIN: And so Walensky and Fryhofer are urging people to revive their pandemic habits. You know, we've heard it lots of times by now. Wash your hands a lot. Wear a mask, especially around vulnerable family and friends. Open windows as much as you can, and stay home if you're sick. And get both a flu shot and one of the new COVID boosters. So far, there haven't been a lot of takers for either of those vaccines. Here's Dr. Walensky again.

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WALENSKY: As we approach the holiday season, togetherness, family, community and connection are truly now more important than ever. To achieve all of those things in good health, it's critical we all take the steps to protect both ourselves and our loved ones.

STEIN: And enjoy the holidays without making ourselves or those around us sick.

INSKEEP: Open window - there's still things people can do. Rob, thanks.

STEIN: Sure thing, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.
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