Can anyone honestly, truly say they feel their best right now? Whether you’re dealing with one of the many viruses currently surging or you feel mentally drained, down or just off, you’re not alone.
This holiday season — our third since COVID-19 showed up — was supposed to be a cheerful return to normal. Instead, amid the specter of a “tripledemic,” this winter is shaping up to be a new kind of warning.
And it’s no surprise that we’re all feeling it one way or another.
“I knew we were going to get pummeled.”
Sure, it might be a bit of an exaggeration to say everyone is sick right now, Dr. Waleed Javaid, epidemiologist and director of infection prevention and control at Mount Sinai Downtown, tells TODAY.com. But it’s not entirely untrue: “There’s a lot of people who are sick,” he says, and certainly more than one might expect.
In fact, almost every expert TODAY.com spoke to for this story confessed that they and/or their kids were sick at the time.
Children’s hospitals are filling with cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which can cause serious breathing issues in babies, young kids and older adults. Flu infections and hospitalizations are rising much earlier than normal. And, with two emerging omicron subvariants, a winter COVID-19 surge may be just around the corner.
“When school resumed and masking was optional, I knew we were going to get pummeled,” Dr. Keri Althoff, associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, tells TODAY.com. Althoff, who has three children in elementary school, emphasizes that these viruses can cause significant disruptions to daily life for the entire family along with the actual illness.
We’re all very worried about what this means for our health care system.
Dr. Keri Althoff
“It’s a rare day that I don’t have a work call with someone who has a kid sick at home,” Dr. Megan Ranney, emergency medicine physician and associate dean for strategy and innovation at the Brown School of Public Health, tells TODAY.com. “And that reflects what I’ve seen in the emergency department,” she says.
Dr. Scott Roberts, associate professor and associate medical director for infection prevention at Yale School of Medicine, tells TODAY.com that he’s seeing record numbers of children hospitalized this year.
“We’ve hit capacity levels that we’ve never seen at Yale in our children’s hospital,” he says. “We’re at 100% capacity in our ICUs, and we’ve had to pull in additional doctors, nurses and other staff to help out with this.” They haven’t had to expand beds yet, but if the trend continues, “we’ll need to start thinking about that,” he says.
Many people were “very ready to say goodbye” to precautions like masking and avoiding crowds, Althoff says, making infections more prevalent than they’ve been over the past few years. Meanwhile, more than 2,000 people are still dying due to COVID-19 every week, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So, with not one but three viruses circulating at the same time when so many have let go of those tools, Althoff says, “I think we’re all very worried about what this means for our health care system walking into these next few weeks.”
Have we just forgotten what flu season feels like?
Certainly, part of it is perception. We’ve all learned to be on the lookout for symptoms that could indicate a COVID infection — both our own and the stranger coughing nearby in the grocery story.
What’s more, after over two years with COVID-19 precautions and lower-than-normal rates of some non-coronavirus illnesses, we may not remember what it’s like to have a bad flu season or even a mild respiratory virus season.
“I do think that we’ve all forgotten what it’s like to have a cold — to be home for a week with a runny nose and a cough,” Ranney says. And being sick comes with a whole new host of consequences that can weigh on our minds and add more anxiety, like having to miss work, stay isolated for days or, at the more extreme end, going to an emergency room with hourslong waits.
But, increasingly, there’s a sense that we’re in the midst of an unprecedented collision of viral illnesses: In the wake of a return to in-person learning without coronavirus-related precautions, RSV and the flu are hitting peak levels earlier than expected, Javaid says. And COVID-19 cases are poised to spike with the holiday season upon us, the experts warn.
This is usually when we start to think about flu trickling in and we’re seeing it surging.
Dr. Scott Roberts
Looking at just the flu, “the main thing is (compared to previous years), we are much higher, much earlier already. And I don’t think people are recognizing that,” Javaid says. Experts aren’t sure if those numbers will fall or just keep rising through the usual flu season. But Javaid isn’t optimistic on that front. “I don’t see a way out of this right now,” he says.
Roberts echoes those concerns. “This is usually when we start to think about flu trickling in, and we’re seeing it surging,” he says. “So, what does that mean for December and January? I don’t know, but I don’t have a good feeling.”
Is this the new normal we really want?
Now, an already stressed health care system and already burnt-out health care workers are bracing for a bad season to only get worse. And the feeling of inevitability only adds to the pandemic’s psychological toll — for all of us.
“COVID was so life-altering for all of us,” Althoff says, “and we kind of feel like we’re in a spin cycle still trying to figure out what our new normal is.”
Chronic issues like pandemic burnout, years of mounting grief, exacerbating mental health conditions and long COVID are marinating in the background, too. Even pre-pandemic, rates of depression, anxiety, drug overdose deaths and firearm injury were rising, Ranney says.
At the most extreme end, “without a doubt,” we are dealing with a higher number of so-called deaths of despair, she explains. In fact, the suicide rate in the U.S. declined briefly after 2018 only to rise again in 2021, data from the National Center for Health Statistics show.
“So that sense of being on edge is very real, and it is borne out by the data,” Ranney says. “But that does not mean it will last forever.”
But there is still hope.
Things may get worse before they get better, Roberts says. But there are still big and small actions we can all take to pull ourselves through this — and better prepare for the future.
First, there are practical things we can all do to stay safe. If you haven’t already, consider getting your COVID-19 booster and flu shot, the experts urge. (You can even get them at the same time.) The CDC recently announced that the updated boosters provide better protection against symptomatic infections than the previous shots. And we can continue to lean on the public health tools we’ve gained throughout the pandemic, like using at-home rapid tests before holiday gatherings, washing your hands frequently and wearing high-quality masks in crowded, indoor spaces.
We have to deal with what’s in front of us like responsible adults.
Dr. Waleed Javaid
But even more than that, we can use the risk-assessment skills we’ve learned to get the joy we need this season while protecting those around us with the tools above. “We need that emotional support. We absolutely need to see our loved ones for our mental and emotional health,” Althoff says. It’s also important to “make sure that we’re doing the right things we need to do to protect our most vulnerable in those situations.”
And the pandemic emphasized just how important both community and larger public health entities are in making those choices feasible. With strong social support, people can, for instance, more easily stay home when sick and have nutritious food on hand while recovering, Ranney explains. And investing more in both public health and health care systems is essential to keeping them working even in times of distress like these, she says.
The experts say there are still reasons to be optimistic: For one thing, it’s likely that this year’s “tripledemic” threat will be a one-year blip rather than the start of a new annual trend, they say.
On a larger level, what we’ve learned from the pandemic may help future generations navigate public health crises more efficiently, Javaid says. We’ve also made strides in identifying how health misinformation spreads online, Ranney adds. And Roberts notes that effective mRNA vaccine technology, now tested in real-world conditions, could bring better methods of preventing other serious illnesses one day.
But in the short term, when many of us are gathering with family and friends “like normal” for what may be the first time since March 2020, much of the responsibility for safety still falls on each individual’s shoulders. That’s not an argument for abandoning our communities, though. In fact, the experts say it’s just the opposite; now more than ever we need to think about how our behavior affects — and can protect — those around us.
“You and I are both done with this, right?” Javaid tells me. “You don’t want to talk about this, I don’t want to talk about this. But we have to because you and I both want people to do the right thing.”
“We have to deal with what’s in front of us like responsible adults,” he continues, “as humans and as community members.”