Health officials caution about respiratory illnesses during this holiday season of gatherings

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As families prepare to gather for the holidays, health officials are cautioning about a rise in respiratory illnesses, and a new strain of COVID-19.

COVID-19 hospitalizations on rise within state, but still low in collar counties

The Illinois Department of Public Health had recommended in mid-December that healthcare facilities “step up mitigation” efforts to help minimize the spread of respiratory illnesses.

At that time about half of the counties in Illinois were at medium or high levels for COVID-19 hospitalizations. Currently, there are about 60 Illinois counties that land in that category.

However Cook County, as well as the collar counties, which include DuPage and Will, are still at low levels for COVID-19 hospitalizations. That means there are 10 or fewer admissions per 100,000 population, over a seven-day measuring span.

Current COVID-19 hospitalizations at Edward Hospital

At Naperville’s Edward Hospital, health officials say COVID-19 hospitalizations most recently were at 21 for the week ending Monday, Dec. 16, which is similar to the amount they saw last year at this same time. According to Dr. Jonathan Pinsky, medical director of infection control and prevention at Naperville’s Edward Hospital, in most of those hospitalizations, patients have other complications besides COVID.

The latest spike at Edward, Pinsky said, came shortly after Thanksgiving, with 32 hospitalizations in the week ending with Dec. 2. With that in mind, health officials say it is smart to use some basic common sense if you have plans to head out to a gathering over the holidays.

Pinsky says you should think about “your individual risk, and the risk of rest of the people you live with and care for. If you’re sick, you know, then… you probably want to avoid, you know, going out in public and infecting people,” he said.

New strain of COVID-19, JN.1

The new strain of COVID-19, JN.1, has been identified by the World Health Organization as a “variant of interest.” Like other strains, it causes mild or moderate symptoms like sore throat, fever, or congestion in most, with more severe symptoms typically affecting those who are immunocompromised or with pre-existing conditions, Dr. Pinsky said.

Other respiratory illnesses more prevalent this time of year

Dr. Pinsky also noted that RSV and the flu are also more prevalent at this time of year.

“We also have a lot of patients with RSV now in the hospital, almost as many as there are COVID patients, as well as some influenza patients and some other viruses,” Pinsky said.

How to protect yourself against illness

Pinsky said the best protection for a number of these respiratory illnesses is to get vaccinated when possible, to help lower your risk.

“If you are 60 years or older, you can get the RSV vaccine, and that one has been shown to prevent, 80% protective in preventing symptomatic infection in the elderly,” Pinsky said.

Pregnant women can also get the RSV vaccine in their last trimester to help prevent their newborns from getting infected.

As for the flu and COVID-19, anyone aged six months or older is eligible to get a vaccine for each.

Dr. Pinsky said keeping up with COVID boosters also helps, noting the newest one came out in September, and can help better protect against some of the more current strains, including JN.1.

If you do get sick and need care, Dr. Pinsky says to phone ahead to your doctor, and wear a mask when you come in to the doctor’s office or immediate care center to prevent spreading any respiratory virus to others.

He said it’s also smart to mask up if you know you’ve been exposed to someone with COVID, or have any symptoms.

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