It still feels like summer outside, but it’s time to prepare for the 2023-24 flu season.
Flu season started early in the Southern Hemisphere, which typically gives experts some clues as to what we’ll experience here in the U.S. To avoid getting caught off guard, it’s important to get the flu shot in September or October, said infectious disease specialist Soniya Gandhi, MD, MPH, associate chief medical officer at Cedars-Sinai.
“Even a typical flu season can be deadly and can cause significant hospitalization,” Gandhi said, pointing to 58,000 deaths in the U.S. and more than half a million hospitalizations—all caused by last year’s flu. “We should do what we can to protect ourselves—and others—with the best tool we have: the flu vaccine.”
Cedars-Sinai primary care physicians and pediatricians are now offering flu shots to patients during regularly scheduled visits. Patients who have been treated by a Cedars-Sinai primary care provider in the past 16 months can schedule a vaccination appointment online through My CS-Link at clinics in Beverly Hills, Marina del Rey, Santa Monica, Los Feliz, Playa Vista and Tarzana.
In addition to the flu, COVID-19 and the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) could again spike at the same time, triggering a “tripledemic,” Gandhi said. Last year, that same triple punch filled emergency departments across the country and strained children’s hospitals with young patients, who are vulnerable to RSV—a virus that can be serious, if not deadly, for infants and older adults.
But there’s a silver lining this year. In addition to the flu vaccine, new RSV shots are available for babies and adults over 60, and a new COVID-19 booster is coming this fall.
“These new shots and vaccines could really help protect us and our community during the upcoming season,” Gandhi said. “We need to preserve capacity in hospitals for those patients who really need that care.”
Help for Youngest and Oldest
RSV causes mild cold-like symptoms in most people, but it’s the leading cause for hospitalization among infants in the U.S. In babies, the virus can cause mild illness or it can cause dangerous inflammation in a child’s tiny airways.
“There's really no way to predict how your child would do even if they're completely healthy,” said Priya Soni, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Cedars-Sinai Guerin Children’s. “If they do end up having a horrible course with RSV, they will likely need to be hospitalized for oxygen support, fluids and other supportive measures.”
Most children in the U.S. will be infected with RSV within the first year of their life, and almost all infants will have been exposed to the virus by the time they're 2 years old.
But parents of infants have a new way to protect their children. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved an immunization—a monoclonal antibody treatment called nirsevimab-alip (Beyfortus)—that can be given as a single-dose shot to newborns and infants during their first RSV season. Children up to 19 months old who remain vulnerable to severe disease in their second RSV season also can get the shot.
Soni said she “100%” recommends the immunization because of strong clinical trials that yielded positive results.
The FDA also recently approved a Pfizer RSV vaccine for women who are 32-36 weeks pregnant to protect their infants at birth. The same vaccine also was approved for adults 60 and older, as was another vaccine from pharmaceutical company GSK.
For older adults, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended these new vaccines only for those who are at highest risk of severe RSV, such as patients with asthma, diabetes or heart failure. Although both vaccines are considered safe, a very small number of cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome—a condition in which a person’s immune system attacks their peripheral nerves—were reported after vaccination.
More data is needed to determine whether these episodes may have been unrelated to the vaccine, according to the CDC. But the significant risk RSV poses to some older adults could outweigh the very low risk of developing potential side effects.
Sonja Rosen, MD, section chief of Geriatric Medicine at Cedars-Sinai, said that for now, she recommends the RSV vaccine for older patients with lung disease, or for those who are otherwise immunosuppressed and therefore at higher risk for severe illness. “Patients should speak with their physician and make an informed decision about whether this shot is right for them,” Rosen said.
New Twist on the COVID-19 Booster
The new COVID-19 booster has been updated to include a sub-variant of Omicron called XBB, which was the predominant strain at the time the shot was approved by the FDA this summer. The vaccine should provide protection from all the strains circulating in the U.S. right now, Gandhi said.
Thanks to the new booster, antiviral medications like Paxlovid and at-home tests, Gandhi is grateful that “we're in a very different position in 2023.” She encouraged the public to take advantage of the booster when it becomes available this fall, to keep themselves and their loved ones safe, especially when gathering throughout the fall and winter holidays.
“We know immunity wanes after the administration of the booster and that many individuals may not have had a booster for quite some time,” Gandhi said. “I think it will be incredibly important, particularly in those populations that are vulnerable to COVID illness, hospitalization and potentially even death, to ensure that they get the updated booster in a timely fashion.”
She said it’s safe to get the COVID-19 and flu vaccines together. For older adults who determine with their physician that the RSV shot is right for them, they should get that immunization alone and two weeks apart from the other vaccines, if possible, Gandhi said.
Read more on the Cedars-Sinai Blog: Flu—When to Go to the ER