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Respiratory illnesses on the decline in Colorado after a holiday spike

 Cold and flu medications on display at a Walgreens store in Longmont, Colorado, on January 23, 2024.
Maeve Conran
Rocky Mountain Community Radio
Cold and flu medications on display at a Walgreens store in Longmont, Colorado, on January 23, 2024.

Data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) shows that respiratory illnesses across the state are declining in January.

That’s much different than the trend the CDC is seeing across the nation.

Dr. Rachel Herlihy, Colorado’s State Epidemiologist, says the decline comes after a holiday surge.

Dr. Rachel Herlihy: Over the holidays, unfortunately, we know that transmission levels for all three of the big viruses were quite high, so COVID-19 transmission, influenza transmission — probably the peak of our influenza season was about a week or two, a couple of weeks ago, so we seem to be coming down from that now — and then also the third virus, RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection), also probably, pretty similar timing where it looks like we're in an early decline right now.

So good news though (there are) still plenty of those viruses out.

And also really, really important to remember that it is not uncommon for us to see a second wave of any of these viruses. So we certainly have learned that over and over again with COVID-19, but that also can happen with influenza.

Keep in mind that influenza is not a single virus, when you get the influenza vaccine, it's covering multiple viruses, and we often see that one virus peaks early in the season, and then later in the spring, we could perhaps see a different virus, another influenza virus cause another wave of illness.

And that certainly can happen with RSV as well, where we can see an extended season or a second peak.

So we know that even though the numbers are decreasing now, that doesn't mean we don't have potential for them to increase again.

Sarah Flower: How are Colorado's numbers looking overall with vaccine rates? I know nationally, they've been low, it appears.

Dr. Rachel Herlihy: Yeah, so it depends on which vaccine you're talking about.

I think it's important to keep in mind that the COVID-19 vaccine is still new for people, and so we are seeing higher vaccination rates with influenza compared to COVID-19 vaccination, but we also have some really great data, local data, Colorado data, that's now on our website, demonstrating the vaccine effectiveness associated with the newest COVID dose.

So certainly encourage people to check that out and see the added protection that you get against severe disease in particular, so against hospitalization and death, if you get that latest COVID-19 vaccine.

And of course the same is true for influenza, and now of course we have some new vaccines for RSV products. These are of course new just this season, and so people are just learning about them, but they are particularly important for people over the age of 60, that's where the recommendation for the adult vaccine is.

Also for pregnant women to protect their baby after birth. And then there's also a product for newborn babies through the — it depends on whether there's risk factors present or not — for at least the first few months.

Sarah Flower: I have some curiosity too about the newest COVID variant which is day JN.1, something that across the nation was 5% of the cases in November, 61% of the cases right now nationwide, and according to CDPHE, 55% of the cases here in Colorado. What's your take on JN.1 and what do you think the general public needs to know about this variant?

Dr. Rachel Herlihy: Yes. So we know that this particular variant is very closely related to the other Omicron subvariants that happen. There are some small changes, and we're still learning more about those changes and how significant they are.

But anytime we see one of these new variants or subvariants emerge, it's for a reason — that virus has some sort of advantage that allows it to displace other viruses that have been circulating.

In the case of JN.1, we think it's probably more likely to spread more easily from person to person, and then probably also has some additional degree of immune escape, meaning that if you've previously been infected and have immunity from that, or you've been vaccinated and have immunity from that, this virus is a little bit more likely to escape that and cause infection.

The data we've seen so far suggests that the vaccine is continuing to work really well. I mentioned the vaccine data that we have, but in general, we know that these new variants have some sort of advantage, and so we've been watching it closely.

I think the good news is that even if that as it's arrived on the scene here in Colorado, we did see a little bit of an increase in our indicators and increase in hospitalizations and other measures, but not a dramatic increase like what we saw when Omicron first emerged two years ago. So it does look like it perhaps could have had an impact here on the amount of transmission, but it hasn't been a dramatic one.

Copyright 2024 KSUT Tribal Radio To see more, visit Tribal Radio.

This story was shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including KSJD.