Take precautions for healthy holidays

‘Tis the season for gatherings and festivities, and as we’ve all gotten accustomed to in recent years, the seasonal spike in communicable viruses.

Since the beginning of the COVID pandemic in 2020, the onset of cold weather and the traditional holiday season from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day have seen a surge in cases. Public health officials have already warned that this year is likely to be little different.

But where severe COVID has been the chief cause for concern in the past couple of seasons, this year a more active flu season is also worrisome.

“As people are spending more time indoors in larger groups, I expect respiratory viral infections to be on the rise,” Bartholomew County Health Officer Dr. Brian Niedbalski told The Republic’s Andy East last week. “Influenza is here, and we are expecting activity to increase over the next several months. We are already in a moderate to high flu activity level across the state currently.”

According to data compiled by the New York Times, hospitalizations in the Bartholomew County area due to COVID peaked in 2020 and 2021 around the holidays:

  • In the first year of the pandemic, an average of 49 patients were hospitalized with COVID the week of Nov. 27-Dec. 3 — the highest weekly average that year.
  • In 2021, a similar season spike in cases occurred. From a mid-November average of 14 people in the hospital with COVID, the average daily patient count rose into the 40s again in December.

To be certain, things have changed since then. The availability of vaccines and boosters have offered new protections. Getting a COVID vaccination and boosters remain the best defense to protect yourself, your family and reduce the community spread of the virus. And the same is true of flu.

But as East reported, while some things have changed, much remains the same with COVID, flu and other respiratory viruses. While the severity of COVID cases has diminished somewhat and the death toll has plummeted, we must remember the pandemic remains with us. And the fact is, COVID remains a deadly threat. Five people died from the virus in Bartholomew County since October 1, officials said.

Another thing that hasn’t changed is the seasonal nature of these virus outbreaks. Like clockwork, the local COVID hospitalization trend line was already creeping upward again before the Thanksgiving holiday.

Experience tells us that these cases are almost certain to rise again in the coming weeks through the holiday season, and public health officials are prepared for it, and doing their best to prepare us for it.

Here is a critical piece of advice about protecting yourself and others, beyond vaccinations. As Dr. Niedbalski told East:

“My advice over the next several months is to avoid gatherings if you have any symptoms suggestive of the flu or COVID. … If you’re sick or running a fever, do a home COVID test or see a physician to get tested for influenza. In addition, don’t send your kids to school or daycare if they are sick. That’s the primary reason these illnesses continue to be spread so easily.”

That’s sound advice for all of us to help ensure that we have happy — and healthy — holidays.