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The RSV surge has peaked, and the flu is receding — but COVID rates are up again

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

With the new year and winter underway, here's the question - what's up with that stew of viruses that's been plaguing us all? NPR health correspondent Rob Stein brings us this update on the nation's tripledemic.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: The good news is the worst appears to be over from the unusually early and severe RSV surge that's been making life miserable for lots of kids and their parents. RSV cases have been falling steadily since the end of November. And the flu looks like it's finally receding, too. Here's Dr. Shikha Garg from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SHIKHA GARG: In a couple of areas, we're seeing activity increase or plateau, but in most areas it's been declining.

STEIN: But lots of people are still catching both influenza and RSV. And the recent holidays could spur the spread of both viruses as people return home from trips, schools reopen and workers return to the office. The U.S. often sees more than one flu wave every winter.

GARG: There may not be a second peak. There could be a second peak that's higher than this peak. There could be a second peak that's lower than this peak.

STEIN: But the illness posing the biggest threat right now is - you guessed it - COVID. I talked about this with the White House's Dr. Ashish Jha.

ASHISH JHA: COVID is the thing that concerns us most as we look to the days and weeks ahead.

STEIN: Jha says the rate at which COVID is being detected in wastewater, which has become a bellwether for the pandemic, has tripled or quadrupled in many places around the country in recent weeks. COVID hospitalizations have jumped 70% and three to four hundred people are dying every day.

JHA: Every major holiday has led to a bump in cases throughout the entire pandemic. And, you know, it stands to reason that we are going to see a clear increase in infections and cases and hospitalizations, unfortunately, over the next few weeks.

STEIN: And to make matters even worse, all this is happening as yet another new, even more transmissible variant is taking over in the U.S. It's called XBB.1.5. The new omicron subvariant was barely on the radar around Thanksgiving, but according to new estimates out today from the CDC, it now accounts for almost a third of all new infections and is now dominant in the Northeast.

SAM SCARPINO: It's shot up like a rocket.

STEIN: Sam Scarpino has been tracking new variants at Northeastern University.

SCARPINO: This variant has displaced other variants in a way that we've never seen before. That's kind of alarming. That's the sort of thing that would suggest maybe a huge surge is coming.

STEIN: The good news is that so far there's no evidence the new variant makes people sicker, and the immunity people have from getting infected and vaccinated should protect most from getting really sick. So no one thinks this winter will be anything like the first two horrific pandemic winters. But XBB.1.5 can sneak around our immunity as easily as anything before it. And this new variant found something none of its predecessors had - a new mutation that also lets it infect cells more easily. That makes it even easier to catch and means lots of people are going to get COVID.

SCARPINO: The question is not whether it's going to cause a surge. It almost certainly will. The question is how big the surge is going to be.

STEIN: So public health authorities are once again urging people to protect themselves. Here's Dr. Jha again.

JHA: What is clearer now, compared to even a year ago, compared to last winter, is that we could really blunt the worst of it by doing the things that we know work.

STEIN: That means getting vaccinated and boosted, especially if you're older; avoiding crowded, poorly ventilated parties, restaurants, bars and other places; testing before gathering; and, yes, putting that mask back on in risky situations, and if you do get sick, getting treated quickly.

Rob Stein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.
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