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Sunday, March 03, 2024

Q&A: Public Health Madison & Dane County tackle COVID-19, respiratory illnesses this fall and winter

Morgan Finke, communications coordinator for Public Health Madison & Dane County, spoke with The Daily Cardinal about the current and future state of respiratory illness in the county.

Public Health Madison & Dane County (PHMDC) works to provide public health resources to over 560,000 people in the local area. 

PHMDC has been working throughout the year to minimize the risks of respiratory illnesses in winter months. The new respiratory illness dashboard, launched earlier in October, expanded the county’s COVID-19 tracking services to cover influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), two of the most prevalent respiratory illnesses in the fall. 

PHMDC Communications Coordinator Morgan Finke spoke with The Daily Cardinal about the organization’s new measures to track respiratory illnesses, the status of COVID-19 in Dane County and how residents can protect themselves from respiratory illnesses this fall and winter.

What would you say the status of COVID-19 is this fall?

We are seeing COVID activity as we have throughout the year, and we're trying to keep as close of an eye as possible on the amount of activity and illness we're seeing while also facing a little bit of a different situation in terms of the way that people are getting tested for COVID and the way that we're kind of learning about the state of things.

Based on some of those factors, we're seeing a pretty stable trend right now with COVID. That's something that can change. We've seen it happen before pretty quickly. If there's an increase, we could see that changing, but right now we're in kind of a low and stable trend for COVID. 

Does Dane County have any information about the [new] COVID-19 vaccines and anything we should know about them coming into the winter months?

These aren't boosters because it's an updated reformulation of the vaccine. It’s not exactly boosting the previous vaccine. It's its own vaccine. Just for the language, that's an important detail. 

Are there any concerns about the rates of COVID-19 going up in the winter months?

A concern about the potential for that happening is the fact that other respiratory illnesses tend to also increase during the winter months.

We've got flu season, we've got RSV for certain groups as a real concern, including infants as well as elderly individuals. As we see, that trio of respiratory illnesses and other things — colds and other illnesses — tend to increase during the winter months. 

That's when we started to get concerned about any increase in COVID. If there is a need for folks to be going to the hospital and there's an influx of other kinds of respiratory illnesses happening at the hospital, that can create some strain on our hospital systems.

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We definitely are expecting to see some of those increases happen during the winter months. It's just historically what happens. Definitely, we're prepared for that, but at this point, it hasn't started to happen yet.

What are some of the risks associated with rates going up or people getting sick with respiratory illnesses?

I think the folks who are at higher risk of COVID are also at higher risk of other respiratory illnesses, so for those folks it's the higher possibility that they could potentially end up hospitalized or worse due to COVID, flu, RSV, any of those things. 

Those sensitive groups need to take extra precautions to make sure that they stay healthy, and the folks around them also [should] be aware and take those extra precautions. Some of the risk factors [are] if you're very young, if you're older and if you have any of those chronic respiratory illnesses already puts you at a higher risk. 

Do you have any advice about how we can stay safe during the upcoming flu season?

The number one thing you can do is get your flu shot and that updated COVID vaccine. You can get both for the same appointment.

If you're starting to feel sick, and you feel like, ‘Oh, I've got a cough, I'm sneezing, I have a fever,’ get checked out by your doctor and consider staying home if you have an event coming, or if you're planning to see a family member who is immunocompromised or could potentially have a more severe illness if they do come down with the flu or COVID. 

Some of these things are common sense, and they've definitely been brought to our awareness over the last couple of years because of COVID, but cover your coughs and sneezes. It's just good, common sense to do to prevent that from spreading anywhere else. Wash your hands, things like that. 

It's not groundbreaking advice. We're in a stage of COVID and flu that we know what keeps respiratory illness from spreading, and we know how to protect ourselves. So that's the same advice, essentially, as years past.

What’s the bottom line about mitigating the spread of illness this winter?

Vaccines. Having some COVID tests on hand at home in case you do start to feel sick — you can take a test and potentially rule out COVID or know that's what you have and go from there. 

And then, staying attuned to what the situation is in terms of tracking where COVID stands through hospitalization data as well as our wastewater data coming from the state. 

What is the county doing to prepare for upticks in respiratory illness this winter?

The main thing is we're continuing to provide COVID vaccines and flu vaccines. Through the CDC, we are still able to vaccinate uninsured and underinsured folks. [But] if you do have insurance, you're asked to go to someone in your network, whether it's a pharmacy or your healthcare provider. 

We're at a stage now where we know the recommendations and we're communicating those recommendations to people. But beyond that, there isn't one specific thing we're doing to necessarily prepare, it's just that we have to see what happens this winter. We have the tools in place already to handle whatever COVID throws at us, and we're prepared to adjust as we need to based on that.

How does the county’s new respiratory illness dashboard tie in with all of this? 

We saw appreciation in the county for having something that was monitoring COVID during the pandemic. And there was a continued interest in having something that could just serve as a gauge or a barometer of where overall respiratory illnesses stand.

On the dashboard, you're able to see a big-picture look at where COVID stands. This is [using] wastewater data from the state. We also are getting some hospital data from our health care provider partners, and then we also pulled some data from a local study ongoing at a school district in Dane County that tracks school absences. 

[We’re] trying to get as many different sources of information that help us understand, “This is what's happening with COVID, and how can I change my behavior or maybe not change my behavior based on that information?” The dashboard is available on our website, and we hope it's a good resource for folks heading into this respiratory season. 

Is there anything else you think is important to mention?

Get your vaccine. It's the best step you can take to protect yourself.

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