Hospitals were flooded with Respiratory Syncytial Virus cases in November 2022 at a rate almost five times the rate in 2021.
Fortunately, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the hospitalization rate dropped to 2021-2022 levels in December, but RSV is not the only virus raising havoc this winter.
The CDC estimates that during this year’s influenza season we have seen 18 million infections, 190,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 deaths related to the flu. In addition, COVID-19 is still producing over 400,000 new cases a week, resulting in around 5,500 hospitalizations and 2,500 deaths weekly. As we are coming off the holiday season, these numbers are likely to rise.
At the same time, an IPSOS survey revealed that a little over a third of the population still sees COVID-19 as a moderate or large risk, and half the country has already returned to their pre-pandemic life styles. In a sense, the nation is generally optimistic about the future regarding COVID-19 or feels that we have done all that we are able to do.
Some of this optimism is probably related to the fact that four out of five Americans believe that we will not be rid of COVID-19 within our lifetime. There is a real sense that many are beginning to view COVID-19 the same way they view the flu, a disease to be tolerated or managed but one that never goes away.
After three years of being in the throes of one of the worse pandemics in human history, we need to move on, but we need to be responsible and cautious.
Our hospitals are filling up again, and COVID-19 is not necessarily the biggest health issue we face today. We must begin to think in term of social responsibility and not forget the lessons of the last few years.
First, if you are sick, stay home.
I work in health care, and we face staffing shortages every day. It is painful in the moment, but it is wiser to work shorthanded than for one coworker to infect two or three more, resulting in half the staff being out sick.
We must be pragmatic in disease management, which begins with each one of us. Staying home when we are sick is essential to slow the spread of any virus and protect your community.
Second, our nation must do a better job of helping families choose between work and health.
Not everyone can take a sick day or work from home. Only 75% of private industry employees have a sick leave benefit, and the average program provides only eight days a year. This is inadequate for most people, particularly families with children.
Other workers are only paid by the hour or are self-employed and do not have sick leave. This is one reason low-income workers were hit so hard with COVID-19. They could not take off and most could not work from home.
Third, we need to consider when and where to wear a mask.
The debate about masking in 2020 and 2021 was sad, revealing a lot about our collective consciousness and how we understand social responsibility.
The scientific benefit of wearing a mask has not changed or been updated. Masks reduce the spray of droplets which carry the flu or coronavirus. Even particles too small to be caught by the mask will have their trajectory greatly reduced.
Therefore, if you think you have been exposed to a virus, or you have symptoms, wear a mask and consider social distancing in order to protect other people.
Fourth, as we move towards a new normal, we should learn about how these viruses are transmitted and gain clarity on when we are able to infect others.
It is frustrating that I still run into people who think that you can contract HIV by sitting on a toilet seat or shaking hands with an AIDS patient. We have known for decades this is not the case, but such myths and misinformation remain widespread.
In like manner, most people’s knowledge of the flu, colds and COVID-19 is just as bad. It is a common misconception that you can only get people sick if you have symptoms.
The flu has a two-to-four day incubation period before symptoms show up and infected individuals are contagious during much of this period. For the common cold, the incubation period is one to two days, while COVID-19 has a three-to-seven day incubation period depending on the variant.
For all three illnesses, infected persons can be symptom free and still infect others. Therefore, one should seriously consider masking and social distancing if they think they have been exposed.
Each of us has a moral responsibility to protect ourselves from illness, but we also have an obligation to protect those around us.
We each need to be conscious of how our behavior knowingly and unknowingly contributes to the health of our communities. This is built into the mandate common to most faith traditions that we are to “love our neighbors as ourselves.”
Senior Staff Chaplain and Clinical Ethicist at the Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.