Respiratory virus outlook for this fall and winter

Respiratory virus outlook for this fall and winter

By Brianne McConnell |

The leaves are falling and the temperature is starting to drop, which means one thing: cold and flu season is upon us. 

Dr. Vivek Sinha, a board-certified family physician in Alexandria, said he is already seeing an increase in the number of sick patients coming into his practice. 

“I’ve seen a lot of people come in who are sick and have respiratory viruses and not all of them are flu. I’m just seeing a large number of people and it could be that people are now more sensitive to it and if they are sick, they want to make sure it’s not Covid. That’s possible,” Sinha said. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “Respiratory Disease Season Outlook” released in October, this fall and winter are not expected to be more severe than last season. As of mid-October, the CDC reported respiratory virus activity is at a low nationally. 

Although COVID-19 remains the primary cause of a majority of the respiratory virus hospitalizations, cases continue to decline in many areas of the country. The CDC also reported that the virus has not resulted in any rapid disease surges so far. 

The Virginia Department of Health also released data between October 24 and Tuesday, which showed there were 3,255 reported cases of COVID-19 across the state and four COVID-related deaths over the same time period. In Alexandria, 30 cases of COVID-19 were reported and no deaths. 

While the numbers give a glimpse into the case rate, they do not give the entire picture since many people are using at-home tests, which likely go unreported to the state or CDC. 

According to the Virginia Department of Health, at the end of October, 74.1% of the population was COVID-19 vaccinated with primary doses and 18.2% of people in the state are up-to-date on the vaccine – meaning they have received all doses, including boosters, recommended by the CDC. In Alexandria, 25% of residents are considered up to date on their vaccination status. 

It’s expected this year’s wave of COVID-19 infections will be comparable to last year, but Sinha said he is still encouraging his patients to get a booster vaccine dose. 

“I’m … reminding people that the reason we are where we are is because of the vaccines,” Sinha said. 

Sinha said after living through a pandemic caused by COVID-19, there is information fatigue. He said he has noticed a dichotomy: While some people are more vigilant to get checked out at the doctor, others have tuned out the doctor completely. 

COVID-19 is not the only respiratory virus people need to worry about this season. RSV – or respiratory syncytial virus – cases increased last year and experts predict it will return to normal season patterns this year. RSV usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms and can be more dangerous for infants and older adults. 

This year, there are new prevention tools available for those at-risk populations, including a vaccine for adults 60-years-old or older and an antibody immunization for infants. Sinha said he recognized the hesitation to get vaccinated, as he has heard from many the flu vaccine makes them feel sick. 

“It is safe to get the flu vaccine,” Sinha said. “You can get an immune response [from the vaccine], but that means your immune system is working.” 

Still, health officials say vaccination remains the best way to protect yourself against serious complications when it comes to many of these respiratory illnesses. 

Sinha points to a recent alert from the Virginia Department of Health about a rare outbreak of meningitis in a part of the state to show how a breakdown in the vaccine process could lead to serious outcomes. 

Since June 2022, there have been 29 confirmed cases of meningitis disease, including six deaths. A majority of the cases were reported in eastern Virginia with one in Fairfax. Most of those who became ill were not vaccinated against this strain of meningitis, according to the VDH. The state health department recommends teenagers should get a first dose of the vaccine before entering seventh grade and a booster before they graduate from high school. 

Sinha said healthy habits are the best defense against cold and flu season. Proper handwashing, getting plenty of rest and staying away from work and school when ill will help keep infection rates low this season.