Although influenza and RSV are top of mind for health care providers, they haven’t forgotten about COVID.
“We have seen a surge for all three,” said Dr. Richard Vu, internal medicine physician and founder of Matthews-Vu Medical Group. “We are still seeing several COVID cases every day.”
While many people are disregarding COVID, “we are not over the pandemic,” Vu said. “It is still going on at high levels around the world.”
El Paso County Public Health has seen a “mild increase” in the percentage of positive COVID tests and hospitalizations, Co-Medical Director Dr. Bernadette Albanese said.
The number of positive cases that are reported to Public Health is creeping up, Albanese said, but that doesn’t paint a complete picture, because positive home tests aren’t reported to the agency.
All hospitalizations and deaths are reported, however.
“We are seeing a moderate increase in hospitalizations,” Albanese said, and people are still dying from COVID.
El Paso County Public Health also monitors tests of sewer water for COVID concentrations. That data also is showing more COVID activity, Albanese said.
The pattern of hospitalizations and deaths has not changed, she said; those hardest hit are the elderly, people with significant underlying conditions and people with weakened immune systems.
Adding to the risk is the fact that patients can have more than one of the viruses currently circulating, said Dr. Paul Mayer, co-medical director of El Paso County Public Health.
“You can get co-infected and have worse outcomes,” he said.
Still, the general approach to dealing with the pandemic is moving to a new phase in which people are returning to their normal activities, with precautions including up-to-date vaccination, masking when appropriate and staying home when sick.
The COVID drive-through vaccination site at The Citadel mall closed Nov. 9, and the Mako community-based testing site located there has been relocated to the Colorado Springs Event Center parking lot at 3960 Palmer Park Blvd.
“That is part of ongoing shifts and gradual transitions to shift some of those clinical services back into traditional health care settings,” said Michelle Beyrle, El Paso County Public Health information officer. “That is aligned with the continued transition from the acute pandemic response into more routine operations.”
The updated Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are still available at El Paso County Public Health at the Citizens Service Center, 1675 Garden of the Gods Road, and are widely available at doctors’ offices and pharmacies.
Flu shots also are important, since “flu has been taking off since the week of Nov. 5, and we are not at the top yet,” Albanese said. “In our area, we’re seeing starting in November what we might otherwise see in January into February,”
BOOSTER LEVELS LOW
Although the uptick in COVID cases has not been as great as health care professionals feared it would be this fall, there is concern that “the uptake of the new bivalent [COVID] vaccine generally has been pretty slow and fairly low,” Albanese said.
“Since the Omicron boosters were released, there’s been 80,155 doses administered and reported,” she said. The majority of those are being given to persons 60 and older, which is what we want to see. But the latest numbers show that only about 31 percent of persons aged 65 and older had received a booster, so that number is concerning … for the age group most at risk of having complications of a COVID infection.”
While Albanese does not have a breakdown of Omicron booster data by age group in people under 65, “I think generally, the uptake in numbers in children all the way through middle-aged adults is not what we’d like to see, considering that this is the best prevention that we have.”
“It is more healthy to take some of the aspects of our lives back.” — Dr. Richard Vu
Vu said a major misconception that began when the first COVID vaccinations were released and still lingers today is that vaccination means you can’t get the virus.
“The vaccine does not prevent the virus from entering your body, but does build up your immune system so you can fight it off better — and you are less likely to be severely ill from it and much less likely to die from it,” he said.
Early diagnosis of both flu and COVID are important because treatments are available for both illnesses.
PAXLOVID is the recommended treatment for people with mild to moderate COVID infections, Mayer said.
The Federal Food and Drug Administration has authorized emergency use of Pfizer’s PAXLOVID to treat COVID in patients 12 and older who are at high risk of severe COVID.
PAXLOVID consists of two tablets that are taken together twice a day for five days. Treatment must be prescribed by a physician and must be started within five days of the onset of symptoms.
About 75 percent of adults are candidates for this treatment, Mayer said. Besides older people and those with compromised immune systems, those most at risk for severe COVID are people who are physically inactive, are overweight or obese, and who have mental health issues.
“We don’t know why ADHD, severe depression or anxiety can raise your risk of severe COVID,” he said.
A secondary treatment modality is remdesivir, but it consists of a three-day series of IV infusions.
“It’s a little harder to get that done,” Mayer said.
The FDA has withdrawn authorization of monoclonal antibody treatment, which is also given intravenously, because it is not effective against the current strains of COVID, Albanese said.
For influenza, Tamiflu helps makes symptoms less severe and shortens recovery time by one or two days. It must be started within two days of exposure to flu or as soon as possible after symptoms appear.
“The pandemic is still here,” Vu said. “However, at least in the United States, the urgency is much less because of the high level of immunity in our society. I strongly think that we are at a level of immunity that we are able to go on with our lives and do most, if not all, of the things we would like to do in a way that is responsible.
“Yes, we need to be cautious, we need to get vaccinated. But it is more healthy to take some of the aspects of our lives back.”
At this point, people should consider the risks and benefits of interacting with others, he said.
“A 25-year-old person who does not have any medical condition and is not at risk of severe COVID disease — it is OK for that person to, say, travel to another state for a vacation,” he said. “But an 85-year-old who has diabetes and heart disease should not travel just to party,” but that person could visit family members or have family members come to her.
There is a real risk of mental health issues from continued isolation, Vu said, especially for older people.
Vaccination with the Omicron vaccine is a key to reducing risks and will help people be better prepared to deal with the next mutation, he said. He also recommends to his patients that they continue frequent hand washing and that people at high risk continue to wear masks when in large groups, especially indoors.
El Paso County Public Health suggests that while people are returning to their regular routines, they have a plan in mind that can be put into action immediately if they get sick.
“A lot of this transition, from a public health perspective, is having individuals on behalf of themselves and their loved ones and their families and friends, be able to have the tools that they need to take care of themselves, know what they are and know how to access them,” Albanese said.
The first steps are getting vaccinated and having test kits available at home.
You can pick up free rapid test kits at all three Public Health locations:
• Citizens Service Center, 1675 W. Garden of the Gods Road
• Valley Hi Public Health, 2948 E. Fountain Blvd.
• El Paso County Public Health South: 6436 U.S. Highway 85-87, Fountain.
Free community-based testing also is available at the Colorado Springs Event Center parking lot.
“Think about what you’re going to do in advance,” Albanese said. “This stuff comes on fast, and you want to be ready. Talk to your doctor in advance about how you get PAXLOVID.”
And then enjoy the holidays.