Understanding How the Public Feels About Protecting Themselves from Respiratory Viruses
For years, there has been talk about the so-called “tripledemic” of RSV, COVID-19, and the flu, and with good reason. When life largely went back to normal after the pandemic began, cases of RSV and the flu surged as COVID-19 cases continued to crop up. Now, respiratory virus season usually means people across the country will face a wave of all three of these viruses. Despite this, a new survey shows that many Americans don’t really care.
The survey, which was conducted by The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, polled more than 1,000 adults in the U.S., and found that 35% are not concerned about a rise in respiratory virus cases. The survey also found that 66% believe that they will get better quickly if they came down with the flu or COVID-19, and about 33% think they don’t need to get vaccines for the flu or COVID-19 if they’re not considered high risk for serious complications from the illnesses.
“One of the lessons we have learned from the COVID pandemic is that the landscape of respiratory viruses can change quickly, and so can public attitude and beliefs about communicable respiratory diseases,” Dr. Megan Conroy, pulmonologist and clinical assistant professor of internal medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center who worked on the survey, tells Yahoo Life. “It’s important for us to understand how people are thinking about and feeling about protecting themselves and others from respiratory viruses.”
Doctors say the findings are concerning. Here’s why.
Why Many People Aren’t Worried About RSV, the Flu, and COVID-19
Many people seem to be unbothered by the potential health risks of getting these viruses, and doctors say they’re not shocked. “Many people are unconcerned because they may be at lower risk for severe disease, or perceive themselves to be,” Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, infectious disease expert and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life.
People have also learned to calculate risk more over the course of the pandemic and have started to apply that to respiratory viruses, he says. Many also understand that RSV, the flu, and COVID-19 are endemic — in other words, they’re not going away, Adalja says. As a result, they’ve just learned to live with the viruses.
The population’s general view on COVID-19 — a virus that once caused daily routines to grind to a halt — has also shifted, Dr. Thomas Russo, a professor and chief of infectious diseases at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life. “Most people believe that, since nearly everyone has had some combination of prior infection, vaccination or both, that they’re largely protected,” he says. “But what they’re missing is that protection wanes over time and the virus evolves to evade that protection.”
While Russo says that public health is now in the “best spot” it’s been since the pandemic began, “there are still a significant amount of people who are having bad outcomes on a daily basis.” COVID-19, for example, causes an average of 2.5% of deaths in the U.S. each week, and the flu can cause up to 52,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. RSV is responsible for up to 10,000 deaths in adults over the age of 65 annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Many people also think, ‘I’m not immunocompromised, I’m not a senior, so I’m all good,'” Russo says. “But while you’re statistically in a better place, no one’s risk is zero.”
Plenty of people are also experiencing lingering pandemic fatigue, Conroy says. “People are tired of worrying about respiratory viruses,” she says. “I get it. Even as a pulmonologist and critical care physician who lived and worked through the pandemic, I am tired of worrying about it, too.”
Conroy stresses that people don’t necessarily need to stress about these illnesses. Instead, she recommends being aware that they’re out there and doing what you can to protect yourself. “Awareness and understanding of what actions help protect us — individually and collectively — from having our lives turned upside down again by viral seasons is of value,” Conroy says.
Who Should Get Vaccinated?
Recommendations on vaccines for the flu and COVID are similar: The CDC recommends that everyone over the age of 6 months get both shots. RSV is a little different. There is currently an RSV vaccine available to people aged 60 and up that’s designed to protect against the virus. There is also a vaccine for pregnant women and an immunization medication for babies younger than 8 months and those who are entering their first RSV season.
How to Protect Yourself from RSV, the Flu, and COVID
Doctors say protecting yourself from these viruses starts with getting the vaccines that are recommended for you. “Think of the vaccines as tools to use to manage risk,” Adalja says. Russo acknowledges that you can still get these viruses if you get vaccinated. “People talk about how they got the vaccine and got infected, but this is all about minimizing severe illness,” he says. “They convert a potentially serious disease into mild disease.”
Wearing a mask can be helpful when cases of respiratory viruses are high in your area, Conroy says. “We know that masks — specifically surgical masks, KN95 and N95 masks — can do a great job of protecting you from getting sick if you’re exposed even in close quarters with someone who is sick,” she says. “It’s why we wear them caring for these patients in the hospital.” She recommends wearing a mask when you’re more likely to be exposed to sick people, such as when you’re traveling or at the grocery store, especially if you’re considered high risk for complications from the virus or are simply trying to minimize the odds you’ll get sick.
Finally, Russo recommends washing your hands often and well.
There is a chance you could do everything right and still get a respiratory virus this year. “If you do get sick, and are feeling particularly ill or are at high risk for it turning into more severe disease, for both COVID and the flu we have antiviral medications that may help you feel better faster — but they generally need to be started early,” Conroy says. “So, be in touch with your physician. If it’s mild enough, consider telehealth visits to keep isolating at home and not spread more virus.”