UK infectious disease expert gives COVID, flu, RSV update

Published 4:32 pm Friday, December 15, 2023

The weekly count of emergency department visits for respiratory diseases in Kentucky has risen by about 2,000 since October, according to Kentucky Department of Public Health data.

COVID and RSV activity is high, flu activity is increasing and hospitalizations for RSV and the flu are increasing, as of Thursday.


While absolute infection numbers may be down on CDC’s website due to at-home testing and a lack of tracking, Dr. Nicholas Van Sickels, a UK HealthCare infectious disease expert, said that COVID infections are increasing.

A combination of the colder air of the winter months, in which viruses survive easier, holiday gatherings and continued mutations of the omicron COVID variant have led to a rise in infection rates.

Sickels said that there are a few new COVID variants, but most are strains of omicron. While some can more easily evade the immune system and are more contagious, others burn out more quickly, he added.

Kentuckians can protect themselves in several ways.

“The vaccine is generally holding strong for what we promised it would do when it was released in late summer, early fall of 2023,” Sickels said.

“… It has the best effect for prevention of COVID infection and disease in the first couple of months, but it protects you for several months against severe disease hospitalization, which should be more of a concern for people who have medical conditions or are at the extremes of age who are at higher risk for hospitalization.”

The newest vaccine is a single dose, one shot preventative measure. Sickels said that Kentuckians can safely get all three vaccines —for COVID, the flu and RSV — at the same time.

He recommends that everyone, including young, healthy people, get vaccinated.

“It is very safe, very effective,” Sickels said. “We’ve given millions of doses of it. all of the rumors about it affecting bodies, affecting cycles and women really have been dispelled and it is a safe, effective way to prevent you and your loved ones from getting COVID.”

Kentuckians should also wash their hands often, particularly at gatherings or before eating. They should also try to touch their face less, because other respiratory illnesses like the flu and RSV “love surfaces” like phones and other devices, Sickels said.

Masking works, and for those who are anxious about getting sick from holiday gatherings, Sickels said he encourages it.

Those who test positive for COVID through at-home tests should quarantine for ten days after they experience symptoms — five days of isolation followed by five days of masking when in public.

Sickels said he expects COVID to continue a seasonal pattern for the foreseeable future, but hasn’t seen a dramatic shift that would cause a huge outbreak in the spring.

“Because most, if not all, Americans have either gotten COVID or a vaccine, we’re safer than we were a few years ago,” he said.

RSV and the flu

The CDC is hoping that RSV cases reach a peak soon, and flu cases are rising, Sickels said.

There are also vaccines available for RSV and the flu.

Sickels said that some people worry about catching the flu from the vaccine, but that is “categorically impossible.”

It’s possible that people may get exposed to some other respiratory illness around the same time during this season. Even when the flu vaccine is not well-matched to the current strain, Sickels said it saves thousands of lives.

The RSV vaccine’s benefits also outweigh the risks, he said.

“RSV is a newer kid on the block and so people are hesitant about it, but I will say the RSV vaccine has been in development in some sort of way since the 1960s,” Sickels said.

There are ways to protect pregnant women, young children and older adults with the RSV vaccine, he added.

Sickels said that while the current surge of respiratory infections has crowded ERs, anyone who is sick should seek help.

Those with milder cases may want to work with a primary care provider before going to the ER, but it is always better to be safe than sorry, Sickels said.