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CDC Director Rochelle Walensky advises on the 'tripledemic'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Americans everywhere are going to be gathering with their families and other loved ones to celebrate the holidays. But what should we be doing to keep everyone safe from illness? COVID cases have been on the rise after Thanksgiving. The respiratory virus RSV has been surging for weeks, sending kids to emergency rooms. And flu cases are exploding. Flu hospitalizations for this time of year are higher than they have been in a decade. So how to navigate this so-called tripledemic (ph) as the holidays approach?

Well, we're going to put that question now to CDC director Rochelle Walensky. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Thanks so much for having me, Ailsa.

CHANG: So I want to start with what seems to be kind of just a common-sense measure against all three viruses right now, and that is masking. Like, here in LA County, the public health director, Barbara Ferrer, said just this week that, quote, "everybody should just go ahead and put those masks on when they're indoors." Do you agree with that guidance?

WALENSKY: You know, so we have always said when we released our COVID-19 community levels back in February that things were on the downward trend, and that was really good news but that we wanted you to put your masks away, not to throw your masks out. And so as we see reentry into respiratory viruses and as areas around the country are turning from green to yellow to orange, we have said - orange really does indicate that there is a lot of infection in the community, that there's a lot of severe disease coming into the hospital and that many of the beds in the hospitals are really now occupied by people with COVID-19. So to protect communities in those circumstances at those high levels, we have recommended and continue to recommend that those communities wear masks.

CHANG: I mean, why isn't the CDC more strongly recommending masking in public places right now, during this so-called tripledemic?

WALENSKY: So we have been recommending masking, as I said, in areas with high COVID-19 community levels. And we have certainly always said that masking is a personal choice. You don't need to wait for CDC's recommendation, certainly, to wear a mask. We recommend wash your hands. Stay home when you're sick. Stay away from people who are sick. Take a COVID test if you have symptoms. Go present to your physician for other tests like for RSV or influenza. If you have symptoms, go to areas with high ventilation. And it is one of those important areas that we can use to protect ourselves in a layered prevention mechanism. Maybe - I will say another really important one - and I'm going to guess you're going to get to this - is vaccination.

CHANG: I will. But I have another question before I get to vaccination.

WALENSKY: Sure.

CHANG: Well, when it comes to people who are 70 or over - I mean, COVID hospitalizations are rising sharply for that group. Why isn't the CDC putting out more forceful messaging about protecting older people from COVID this season?

WALENSKY: The messaging that we're using in terms of protecting older people from COVID but also from other respiratory pathogens - and including influenza and RSV, both of which impact older people with more severity as well - is prevention mechanisms such as flu vaccine and COVID vaccination, really critically important. We only have about 33% of people over the age of 65 who've gotten that bivalent vaccine this season.

CHANG: Yeah.

WALENSKY: And we know that that's going to be really important for...

CHANG: So what is being done to increase vaccination among that particular group, people who are 70 years or older?

WALENSKY: So we're going back to a lot of the trusted messengers, back to the community, making sure that those vaccines are available, working with our long-term care facilities, working with the community, doing education, working with the hospital community, the medical community to really reiterate the importance of these vaccines as well as to demonstrate the data of how well these vaccines are working.

CHANG: These latest bivalent COVID boosters, I mean, how well do you think they will work given the fact that they target sub-variants that really aren't dominant anymore, right?

WALENSKY: We know that, you know, as variants have progressed, they have evaded immunity more and more. So do we anticipate that they're going to have the same rates of protection as they did for the original strain? Not necessarily. Do we believe that they will maintain some protection against infection? Yes, we actually reported on that. And then some more protection against hospitalization, severe disease, yes. And so that's really the goal.

CHANG: Well, turning to RSV, what do you see happening with those infections? Like, are we past the peak at this point?

WALENSKY: We have seen certainly a surge in cases, a rise in cases. My heart and respect and gratitude to all of our health care workers who are working hard through this season, not just for respiratory viruses in children but through - across the board. Around the country, we're seeing now decreases in rates of RSV, fortunately, in the South, South Central, even in the Northeast, in the Mid-Atlantic region. And so we are hopeful that those trends will continue.

CHANG: Well, finally, may I just ask you, what precautions is your own family going to be taking this holiday season? Like, will you be personally masking up at the supermarket or just avoiding large gatherings in general? What are you and your family doing?

WALENSKY: Yeah. You know, I think it's really important to sort of go back to the basics of the things that we know that we can do to protect ourselves. So the first thing is what can you do in advance? And that is to get your COVID-19 vaccine, get your influenza vaccine and to do so now because you'll be - if you get it now, you'll be protected by the holidays. And we really want people to gather.

Second, unfortunately, if you have symptoms, if you are feeling unwell, we are going to ask you to stay home. We are saying we don't really want people to gather if they're feeling unwell. We'll open the windows for people, increase ventilation if we can. And then, if there's a large gathering, consider wearing a mask. We also - you know, we'll consider doing testing before we all gather.

And then finally and really important is that - and my family knows this. I want to make sure every family knows this. If you do get those symptoms, call your providers early because there are tests not just for COVID-19 but also for influenza. And if you are diagnosed early, we have antivirals that can be used to shorten your disease course and your disease severity.

CHANG: CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, thank you very much for joining us again.

WALENSKY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Megan Lim
Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.