COVID, RSV and flu packed California ERs last winter. Here’s how to protect yourself this year

Health care experts have unveiled new vaccines and shots to stave off serious illness and prevent another so-called “tripledemic” from overwhelming emergency rooms this holiday season.

Last winter, multiple California ERs had patients spilling out into parking lots because of the surge of people who caught flu, COVID-19 or RSV, all potentially deadly respiratory viruses that circulated simultaneously.

Two brand-new vaccines for RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, are now available for adults over 60. While RSV is a common illness, it can be extremely dangerous or even fatal for very young children and older people, as well as immunocompromised people of all ages.

For babies under 8 months old, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended a new monoclonal antibody therapy called nirsevimab. Babies up to 19 months old can also get the shot if they’re at an increased risk of severe outcomes from an RSV infection.

The therapy is not a vaccine, but it will help babies’ immune systems fight off infection, said Jennifer Louie, a pediatric urgent care physician with Sutter Health’s Palo Alto Medical Foundation.

“Monoclonal antibodies, you’re almost hiring a superhero for a short period of time to prevent you from getting sick,” the doctor said during a news conference. “The nice thing about this is it’s just one shot, and it’s going to last you through the RSV season and hopefully prevent lots of hospitalizations.”

New COVID-19 vaccines are expected to roll out in the coming weeks for children and adults, offering those who receive the shot additional protection against the variants now circulating.

“The goal is not just to prevent you from being hospitalized and dying,” said Jeffrey Silvers, Sutter Health’s medical director of pharmacy and infectious disease at the news conference. “Do you really want to get sick? Do you really want to give it to other people? Do you really want to miss work?”

The state has reported that, on average, nine people in California died of COVID-19 per day between June 13 and Aug. 7. COVID-19 hospitalizations have been steadily ticking up since early July.

“In other other years, it seems like we had a predominant (COVID) strain,” Silvers said. “And right now we have about 10 or 12 different strains circulating. ... They’re probably all pretty well covered by the vaccine, which is very good.”

It is safe to receive the COVID-19 and flu vaccines at the same time, health officials say. Because the RSV vaccines are new, doctors are recommending a two-week window between an RSV vaccine and the flu shot or the COVID vaccine.

The best time to get these vaccines is sometime during September or October, before the viruses are spreading in full swing during the winter months. But, the physicians said, it’s better late than never.

“There’s a real value to getting vaccinated against all the viruses if you’re eligible, and then of course, appropriate hand hygiene, social distancing and masking are all worthwhile,” Silvers said. “Get vaccinated. Protect yourself, protect your family, protect your friends, protect everyone.”