COVID, flu and RSV are still here. The ‘tripledemic’ doesn’t care that we’re over being sick.

Doctor checking up on child

This opinion editorial by Dr. Thomas K. Lew appeared on USA Today. Read more here.

Dr. Thomas K. Lew is an assistant clinical professor of Medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine and an attending physician of Hospital Medicine at Stanford Health Care Tri-Valley.

There’s a saying in many hospitals: The nicer a patient is, the worse their prognosis.

This was unfortunately true when I treated a recent hospitalized patient with metastatic breast cancer. A former teacher, a pastor’s mother and grandmother to six, she was sweet and kind to everyone in the face of her grave diagnosis. When she contracted RSV, her oxygen levels dropped and her breathing became more shallow, but she would still greet each hospital staff member with a smile and a blessing. Despite our best efforts, we could not save her. On the day she died, we all cried for having known such a beautiful soul.

While she was a unique individual, her story of dying from a respiratory infection is not rare these days. Respiratory viruses are very widespread this season and the term “tripledemic” seems to be ubiquitous. RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), influenza (“the flu”) and COVID-19 are spreading throughout the community and putting the vulnerable and unvaccinated at risk.

It seems that more than any other winter in recent memory, people around us are sniffling, coughing or sneezing. These could be common cold viruses, or manifestations of one of the tripledemic viruses in a healthier immune system. Each of these can be deadly in the right (or rather, wrong) person, and can easily be spread to them by healthier passersby.

Even though we are out of the pandemic and COVID-19 is not nearly as lethal as it was four years ago, make no mistake – it still kills. The World Health Organization recently released a report stating COVID-19 took 10,000 lives in December, across about 50 countries.

Although the United States is not seeing the types of numbers we saw during 2020 through 2022, there are reports of nearly 1,500 Americans dying each week due to COVID-19. And those are only the ones we track.

The flu and RSV can also be quite deadly. Last winter season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that the flu caused 21,000 deaths in the United States. RSV caused up to 10,000 elderly people to die during that same time period.

Vaccines can prevent RSV, flu and COVID deaths

This can all be preventable. If there’s anything we should have learned in the past four years of living with COVID-19, it’s that public health measures work and can save lives.

Conversely, ignoring public health recommendations can take lives, as one study noted when it found that between June 2021 and March 2022, 234,000 American deaths could have been prevented with more widespread vaccine use.

Now is the time to protect our elderly, sick and immunocompromised loved ones. Get the flu shot. Get the COVID-19 vaccine and boosters. Talk to your doctor about the RSV vaccine. If you develop fevers and respiratory symptoms, isolate or at least wear a mask. Listen to the national public health officials.

This will not only save the lives of people you know, but also those you don’t. These viruses spread so easily from person to person. An errant cough may lead to a sweet grandma, whom you stood in line with at the grocery store, dying in the hospital.

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You’ve got questions. That’s a good thing.

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