This article appeared on The Detroit News. Read more here.
With COVID-19-related hospitalizations trending up in Michigan and peaking at 800 in late November, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention visited a Detroit vaccine clinic on Thursday to encourage vaccinations and testing for all circulating respiratory viruses this holiday season.
Mandy Cohen, the CDC’s director, stopped by the Detroit Healthy Housing Center, a facility that provides emergency shelter to medically at-risk adults, where the Detroit Department of Health was hosting a day-long vaccination event. They offered free vaccines and testing to community members.
“As we get into December and deeper into the winter, we know we’re going to see more viruses and more bacteria circulating, particularly as we gather for holiday parties or travel for Christmas,” said Cohen. “Here in the Detroit area, we are still seeing a lot of COVID.”
Winter is typically the season for respiratory illnesses from influenza to respiratory syncytial virus, a common cold-like infection that can be serious in both infants and the elderly.
For the first time, vaccines are available this season for RSV, flu and COVID-19.
People of color are two to three times more likely to contract COVID-19 and die from the disease in Detroit, according to the city’s Chief Public Health Officer Denise Fair Razo.
“I think it’s really important in the city of Detroit to have a community where people feel comfortable going to the Detroit Health Department,” Fair Razo said. “There is leadership that looks like the population, and I think that’s really, really important when you are trying to talk to somebody about getting the flu or the COVID vaccine.”
Partnering with already trusted sources of care in Detroit communities, like the Healthy Housing Center, is a key strategy for reducing vaccine hesitancy, Cohen said.
“We know that when someone can talk to their doctor or nurse practitioner about their questions or concerns, that helps them get vaccinated,” Cohen said. “One of the top reasons folks don’t get vaccinated is because their doctor didn’t bring it up.”
Johanna Parker, a Detroit resident, got her up-to-date COVID-19 vaccine at the clinic Thursday morning. She said it’s especially important to protect the most vulnerable community members. Parker is currently undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer and has to do everything she can to protect her immunity.
“You can catch COVID and RSV and everything else … with the vaccine. But I’m still alive because I took the vaccine,” Parker said. “… Some things you can’t avoid, but the full extreme of the disease is something that I didn’t suffer (from) because I did take the vaccine.”
While influenza levels remain low in Michigan, it’s still early in the season, and it’s not too late to get an updated flu shot, Cohen advised. RSV is also circulating, although levels are significantly lower than they were during last season’s surge, but more people are getting pneumonia.
“Things have treatment,” Cohen said. “You want to get tested if you’re feeling sick, because that can get you to treatment which could save your life as well.”
COVID hasn’t gone away
While most of the general population has had COVID-19 or gotten at least one vaccine, everyone can still get sick, Cohen warned.
“I know it’s been a hard number of years, and everyone just wants to move on. But unfortunately, those viruses are still here,” Cohen said. “I don’t think that we can forget about them.”
Protection from vaccines and a previous COVID infection offers some immunity, but that wanes over time as the virus mutates and becomes more transmissible, Cohen said.
“The virus has changed, just like the flu virus changes year over year, (and) we’re seeing the COVID virus do something similar and keep changing,” Cohen said. “So you want to get an updated COVID vaccine to match all those changes in the virus.”
People can also develop long COVID, or extended symptoms, even if they only had a mild case of the virus initially, Cohen said.
“I want folks to know what I recommend for my own daughters, who are nine and 11,” Cohen said. “I got them the updated flu vaccine. I got them the updated COVID vaccine. I got myself vaccinated, my husband and importantly my parents, who are over 65 — folks who are over 65 are at the highest risk.”
Razo reminded everyone to stay home if they are feeling sick, get tested and get vaccinated.
“People are getting really, really comfortable. They’re not really thinking too much about COVID,” Razo said. “But once again, we are right back where we were this time last year where the numbers have … started to increase just a little bit.”
The latest COVID-19 booster shot was approved after the public health emergency ended this spring, so the federal government is no longer in charge of purchasing and distributing it.
“Before … we knew exactly where the doses were. We know who was getting them. It’s different now. So the private sector is in charge,” Cohen said. “But the good news is we have plenty of supply of the vaccines. … Folks can get a free vaccine at places like CVS and Walgreens.”
Adding COVID-19 into the mix of seasonal transmission will make for a challenging season, said Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, chief medical executive with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
“There are a lot of things transmitting,” she said. “We can expect for winter virus season to put more strain on our healthcare systems to cause more illness, because there is simply one more virus contributing to all of that.”
Limited availability of RSV vaccines
For the first time, RSV vaccines are available for infants, older adults and pregnant mothers to immunize their unborn children. While most people who contract the virus recover within a few weeks, infections can be serious and even fatal in infants and older adults and may require hospitalization, according to the CDC.
The CDC announced that the vaccines for infants and young children were in short supply due to high demand in October, and recommended prioritizing those most at risk for severe infection.
“The manufacturers had some delays in their production, so we had some limited supply, and that continues,” Cohen said.
Seventy-seven thousand additional doses were made available in November and distributed through the Vaccines for Children Program. More doses will become available in January, but supplies remain limited, Cohen said.
“What I would have parents do is call their pediatrician, see if it’s available, and make sure that their pediatrician is knowing that they want to get vaccinated,” Cohen said. “The other thing is if you’re a pregnant mom and you’re between 32 and 36 weeks, we also have a new vaccine for pregnant moms to protect their babies against RSV. So there’s another option out there for the first time.”
Cases of RSV surged in 2022, but current metrics aren’t showing the same steep rise in the season so far, Bagdasarian said.
“All of our cases, COVID-19, influenza, RSV, are trending up and again that is as we expected,” she said, emphasizing the importance of regularly getting vaccines. “But we have tools to make sure that our residents that our population don’t end up with the severe complications of them.”