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This year's holiday season is making infectious disease doctors very nervous

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

All right. This week kicked off the holiday season. So you take lots of people traveling for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's, you add it with getting together with family and friends and that equals infectious disease doctors getting very, very nervous, and not just because of COVID this year. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now to explain. Rob, for the last two years, Thanksgiving helped ignite some pretty big surges of COVID. So what's the situation like this year?

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: You know, A, it's quite different. You know, the last two years, the big concern was the pandemic. And for good reason. Thanksgiving acted almost like big super spreader events. This third pandemic winter, COVID is still with us, but the picture is much more complicated in both good ways and bad.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Let's start with the good ways.

STEIN: Yeah. So the good news is the situation with COVID is much better. Don't get me wrong, it's not great by any means. The virus is still infecting tens of thousands and killing hundreds every day. And new omicron subvariants are taking over that are even better at sneaking around the immune system. And that means lots of people are still catching the virus, even if they're vaccinated and boosted or already had COVID. And the holidays could easily make that worse. But the immunity people have from all those shots and infections should keep most from getting so sick they end up in a hospital or die. And the new bivalent omicron boosters should help reinforce people's immunity. I talked about this with Dr. Ashish Jha at the White House.

ASHISH JHA: I'm hopeful, given where we are with this outbreak, with COVID, that we're not looking at something like last winter. But look, at the end of the day, Mother Nature gets the final word on these things.

STEIN: And that's because we're not just dealing with a pandemic this year. We're now facing what many infectious disease specialists are calling a tripledemic.

MARTÍNEZ: A tripledemic. Great.

STEIN: Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: What does that mean, Rob?

STEIN: Yeah. Well, you know, during the pandemic, other respiratory viruses were mostly no-shows because of everything everyone did to stop COVID from spreading. But now that life has mostly gotten back to normal, all those viruses aren't just back, they're back with a vengeance. RSV rebounded really early by infecting all the pandemic babies who essentially had no immunity because they were so isolated the last two years. And that's overwhelming children's hospitals. And then the worst flu season in years took off early as well, making more kids sick with a flu bug that's also hitting their grandparents hard. I talked about this with Dr. Tina Tan, an infectious disease specialist at Northwestern.

TINA TAN: Because RSV and flu and COVID can all cause really severe disease, it's really going to put a strain on the hospital systems, very much like we saw with that first wave of COVID, where the hospital systems in some places were just completely overwhelmed.

STEIN: So Tan and others are urging people to do whatever they can to help keep that from happening.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Which is what?

STEIN: Well, you know, for starters, get a flu shot. It's not too late. And also get a new bivalent omicron booster while you're at it. We're still waiting for data on how well those boosters work, especially against the latest crop of subvariants. But they certainly can't hurt. And people should dust off all their COVID habits. You know, stay home if they're sick, open windows as much as possible, wash their hands and even put those masks back on, especially around babies and other vulnerable family and friends.

The good news, A, is RSV might already be peaking, and there's a chance the flu could come and go quickly, too. There's even a theory that the flu and RSV could help tamp down COVID this year like COVID did to those viruses the last two years. But, you know, all we really know for sure is that this unusual mix of respiratory bugs is making this holiday season incredibly unpredictable.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, thanks.

STEIN: Sure thing, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.