(NEXSTAR) – A week after the Thanksgiving holiday, there’s a good chance you’ll feel a runny nose, cough or a little scratchy throat. It’s not just you—the country is grappling with a viral “triple epidemic” (not to mention, lots of colds).
As of late November, reported cases of COVID-19 in the United States have stabilized but remain high. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported about 300,000 new cases in the past week, but that number may be lower because home tests are often not reported to public health agencies.
Meanwhile, influenza is on the rise and reaching its peak much earlier than the normal flu season. The CDC’s initial numbers are rough, but the agency believes about 14 million have been sickened and up to 8,400 people have died.
As with RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), this year’s flu season has been particularly difficult for children. RSV has overwhelmed children’s hospitals across the country since October.
What’s behind the seemingly omnipresent disease? Are there suddenly more viruses than before? Or are our immune systems weakened after years of masks and social distancing?
A virologist and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Dr. According to Andy Pekosz, neither is it.
“It’s not that our immune systems are weak, because it certainly seems like everyone is recovering. So far there has not been a really high increase in the death rate associated with the flu,” he explained.
If our immune systems were collectively weakened from 2020, we’d expect people to get sick and die from influenza, RSV or COVID-19 more often, but that’s not the case. “We’re seeing the effects of three years of no viral circulation,” Pecos said.
For example, RSV is a common virus that we are constantly exposed to. It is usually more difficult for young children and infants who have not developed immunity from repeated exposure. Adults get it big this year too.
“People haven’t been exposed to much RSV, so their bodies have stopped making antibodies,” said Dr. Jim Scott told Nexstar’s KRON. It’s not that our immune system has forgotten how to create the antibodies it needs, but it takes some time for antibody production to “catch up and catch up.”
Staying at home, wearing masks, and avoiding large gatherings weren’t just effective in curbing the spread of COVID — it also brought down levels of flu transmission and other respiratory viruses. Almost all of those measures have been removed and the virus has started to spread rapidly again.
“It is a normal process that we see here. We’ve had this big jump back to bring us back to balance now, after not seeing that for three years,” Pecos said.
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