What Larimer County Health Experts Recommend for Holiday Gatherings

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Although emergency room visits and hospitalizations are on the rise with seasonal increases in cases of COVID-19, the flu and respiratory syncytial virus, Larimer County health officials said there’s no reason to forego large holiday gatherings this year.

At least not if you feel good.

Those who feel unwell should probably stay home until their symptoms have subsided — a minimum of 24 hours after their last temperature without the help of fever-reducing medications for flu and RSV, and five days from the onset of symptoms for those with COVID-19, they said Wednesday during a community update on respiratory diseases.

“We’re social creatures,” Larimer County Health Director Tom Gonzalez said. “We went through a difficult period with the pandemic. It’s just making those good decisions based on your health and the health of your family.

“We encourage people to come together and celebrate with family and friends.”

Emergency room visits, hospitalizations are on the rise in Northern Colorado

Banner Health and UCHealth have seen significant increases this month in emergency room visits and hospitalizations for the three respiratory viruses, said Erica Cathy, the county’s coordinator of communicable diseases and emergency preparedness and response. While most of those cases still involve COVID-19, there has been “a pretty dramatic increase in our flu-related visits,” she said.

The increases local hospitals are seeing are consistent with modeling by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she said, which calls for “moderate” seasons for all three respiratory viruses this fall and winter. The CDC, she said, warned that a peak of all three viruses at the same time could overwhelm hospitals.

That’s not the case locally, officials from Banner and UCHealth said.

Alan Qualls, CEO of Banner Health’s Fort Collins, Loveland and Greeley hospitals, said there were only 10 patients total at those three facilities being treated for one of the respiratory viruses. And they are all “probably 65 and older with underlying health problems,” he said.

People in the “general population who get COVID-19 for the most part are not hospitalized, just feeling a little bit unwell, but they’re mostly being treated at home,” said Kevin Unger, CEO of the Northern Region of UCHealth.

UCHealth hospitals in Fort Collins, Loveland, Greeley and Steamboat Springs have seen a “slight increase” in “respiratory problems,” Unger said, but nothing that threatens the hospitals’ ability to treat those patients or others.

December is always busy, he said, with people planning surgeries and other procedures before the end of the year to maximize their insurance benefits before their annual deductibles reset.

“We are fully staffed and have really been able to cope with this year’s rise in respiratory problems. … Everything looks fine. Our EDs are extremely busy, we see a lot of different issues in the ED, but overall, very manageable.”

Vaccines reduce hospitalizations and deaths

Vaccines for all three respiratory diseases appear to be effective in reducing the incidence and severity of each, said Dr. Paul Meyer, Larimer County medical officer.

“It’s never too late to get a vaccine,” Gonzalez said.

Early data on the current COVID-19 vaccine, Meyer said, show that it is effective against currently circulating variants and reduces the risk of hospitalization by roughly 50 percent and the risk of death by about 60 percent.

“If you’ve gotten the vaccine, then you’re less likely to be hospitalized, you’re less likely to die from COVID,” Meyer said.

He said flu shots are about 50 percent effective at preventing hospitalizations during the flu season in the Southern Hemisphere.

And the new RSV vaccines, which are recommended for people 60 and older and pregnant women, were about 80% effective against symptomatic disease for those 60 and older in the first year after receiving the vaccine, and 57%-68% effective in protection of newborns of mothers who were vaccinated in the first six months of the child’s life. The vaccine, which produces antibodies in the pregnant mother that are then transmitted to the child in the placenta, is 69%-87% protective against severe disease in the first six months of life, when babies are most vulnerable to RSV, Mayer said.

Most health insurance plans, including Medicare Part D, cover the cost of recommended vaccines, said Corey Wilford, communications and technology manager for the Larimer County Department of Health and Environment. The county health department offers recommended vaccines free of charge to those without health insurance or plans that don’t cover vaccines, she said.

Do you have COVID or the flu? There are ‘very effective therapeutics’

Meyer urged people who feel unwell to contact their doctor to access “very effective therapy.”

The majority of people who get COVID-19, he said, would benefit from the use of Paxlovid, which he said is “grossly underutilized.” There are also a number of effective flu treatments, especially for children.

“We really want people to talk to their health care providers when they get sick and get guidance,” Meyer said.

Common precautions will help protect you from respiratory viruses

The best way to protect yourself and slow the spread of COVID-19, flu and RSV is to use the basic, common-sense practices that medical professionals emphasized during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, they said.

Wash your hands often, cover coughs and sneezes, and if you have to go out in public while you’re sick, wear a proper mask to avoid spreading your germs to others.

“We always like to emphasize prevention, just basic good health,” Meyer said. “We’ve learned, and I think it’s been highlighted with COVID, that basic good health is important. So, good rest, good nutrition, regular daily exercise. We’ve seen things like that really impact hospitalizations and mortality from COVID.

“And then, of course, in terms of public health, we want to really encourage vaccinations. We have some excellent tools to prevent these diseases or to reduce the impact of the diseases even if you do get them.

Reporter Kelly Lyall covers education, breaking news, some sports and other topics of interest to Colorado residents. Contact him at [email protected], twitter.com/KellyLyell or facebook.com/KellyLyell.news.

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