3 Questions: What to expect from respiratory illnesses, including Covid-19, this winter

MIT Medical Director Cecilia Stuopis says that while this is a time to be more vigilant, people should not panic.

David Tytell | MIT Medical

January 13, 2023

Levels of respiratory illness are rising in the Boston area and elsewhere. Here, MIT Medical Director Cecilia Stuopis provides recommendations for keeping yourself and others healthy during the winter months.

Q: Rates of Covid-19 and other respiratory illnesses are back on the rise. Should I be concerned?

A: While everyone should take additional precautions, people should not panic. In early November, along with other experts, we predicted that the combination of an early start to the flu season, reduced Covid-19 restrictions, immune-dodging Omicron variants, and the nationwide surge in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) could very well combine forces to make a lot of people sick.

In many ways, that prediction has become a reality. According to the CDC, Middlesex County is now experiencing a high level of community transmission for Covid-19, likely driven by the highly contagious Omicron subvariant XBB.1.5 and an increase in gatherings associated with the holiday season. At the same time, Covid-19 viral levels have increased in the last few weeks in Boston-area wastewater; flu remains prevalent; and RSV-prompted hospitalizations are continuing.

Granted, this can be worrisome, but we are in a very different place than we were last year, and certainly than a few years ago. We now know that Covid-19 vaccinations do not fully prevent transmission — particularly when it comes to many of these new variants — but we also know that the vaccines do an excellent job at preventing severe Covid-19 illness.

As for the flu, according to the CDC, this year’s vaccine is a very good match to the circulating strains. So, if you haven’t received your flu vaccine yet, or if you aren’t up to date with your Covid-19 boosters (including your bivalent booster), we strongly recommend that you get your immunizations as soon as you can.

In addition to vaccinations, masking remains a powerful method for preventing the spread of illness. Be sure to have a supply of well-fitting, high-quality masks on hand, and wear them when appropriate.

Q: What is MIT doing, or planning to do, in response to the increased prevalence of these viruses in our community?

A: MIT is continuing to monitor the situation closely, and we remain in close communication with both local and state health officials. Our advice remains what it has been since the fall, with the caveat of increased vigilance for the coming weeks as we face this uptick: We continue to encourage members of the MIT community to wear high-quality, well-fitting masks if they wish to do so, and we remind everyone that free KF-94 masks are readily available in vending machines across campus, and hand sanitizers are still located throughout the MIT campus.

If you feel sick — even if you test negative for Covid — it is important to mask up, stay home, and test. The new CVS in Kendall Square is among the many local pharmacies that stock rapid Covid-19 tests, and free tests are again available by mail from the U.S. government and through your health insurance plan. You can also attest to your symptoms on the MIT Atlas (Covid Pass) app, and pick up and drop off a PCR test on the first floor of the atrium between Buildings E23 and E25. Covid-19 PCR tests are free for MIT Atlas (Covid Pass) participants who have symptoms.

It is also important to remember that MIT remains committed to providing students with a fully in-person educational experience for 2023. To that end, faculty, instructors, and students should take time to brush up on these policies and resources.

Q: What should I do to keep myself and others safe?

A: Our recommended precautions for avoiding respiratory illnesses are the same as always: Wash or sanitize your hands often, particularly before eating and after using the restroom. Wear a high-quality, well-fitting mask in crowded areas such as airports and airplanes, large indoor events, and when riding the MBTA. And if you feel sick, mask up and go home, or stay home if you are there already.

The measures you take to prevent the spread of Covid-19 will also help prevent transmission of flu, RSV, and other illnesses. And appropriate, meaningful precautions don’t only protect you; they also protect those members of our community who are particularly susceptible to illness.

Finally, if you do test positive for Covid-19, speak to a health care provider to see if they recommend you take Paxlovid. Free telehealth appointments are available for Massachusetts residents.

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