Medical experts have warned of surges COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus this winter, informally known as a “tripledemic.” According to the Washtenaw County Health Department, flu cases in the county appear to have peaked in December, though another wave is still possible. The county’s community transmission rate is currently designated as “high” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though county health officials say this classification is due to the recent addition of backlogged cases to CDC data and estimate the level of transmission at “medium” instead.
Marisa Eisenberg and Emily Toth Martin, University of Michigan associate epidemiology professors, wrote an article discussing the prevalence of COVID-19 and other annual illnesses on campus. Published in December 2022, the article highlights how multiple diseases in addition to COVID-19 are coming together to infect more people with severe symptoms.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Eisenberg said the COVID-19 pandemic is not over, even though many consider it to be.
“We’re not post-pandemic, but we’re in that transitional phase,” Eisenberg said. “Where COVID-19 is becoming part of the regular mix, but it’s still causing a lot of serious outcomes like hospitalizations, deaths and things like that, more so than a lot of other respiratory illnesses that we would usually encounter.”
The Food and Drug Administration recently suggested an annual dose of the most recent COVID-19 booster alongside the influenza vaccine to address low booster rates. In the same interview, Martin said it’s important to stay vigilant about disease prevention because COVID-19 remains dangerous and especially infectious.
“COVID-19 is still more transmissible than these other viruses,” Martin said. “A higher percentage of people with COVID-19 have severe outcomes compared to the other viruses.”
According to the article, several other infectious diseases in addition to COVID-19 are proliferating through campus. In particular, Martin highlighted how influenza and respiratory syncytial virus have had elevated infection rates on campus and throughout the country.
“RSV is … actually one of the earliest respiratory viruses,” Martin said. “It affects infants and affects the oldest adults and can have very severe outcomes (that) can be fatal for infants. And adults and kids of all ages actually get RSV fairly frequently.”
Eisenberg said the combination of COVID-19, influenza and RSV cases circulating through the country was expected, but still surprising. She said though epidemiologists had expected these three diseases to work together since last year, the disease prevention methods taken during the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in fewer cases of influenza and RSV.
“ … We had all of these other mitigation measures in place and so we didn’t have the flu season and the RSV and all the other things,” Eisenberg said. “And this is the year that (RSV and influenza cases are) finally actually is happening.”
In an email to The Daily, Dr. Rob Ernst, executive director of University Health Service, said influenza infection rates have declined on campus since its surge in the fall, and RSV has declined as well.
“The RSV surge from the fall has declined considerably, and we never really saw a surge of RSV among the U-M student population,” Ernst wrote. “That largely affected young children and the elderly. Influenza also has been declining since late December.”
Ernst also said the University doesn’t track RSV and influenza in the same way they track COVID-19 because RSV and influenza can be harder to notice, making them less reported on campus.
“It’s important to note that RSV and influenza are not reportable illnesses in the same way as COVID-19, so we don’t have the same monitoring systems in place,” Ernst wrote. “Typically we only know someone has RSV or the flu if they are sick enough to seek medical care and are then tested by their healthcare provider.”
Ernst also provided vaccination rates for COVID-19 among students, faculty and staff. He said the high rates present among all members of the U-M community are important for preserving public health and for the University to progress towards normalcy.
“In part thanks to (the University’s) vaccine policy, our campus has an extremely high vaccination rate against COVID-19 with 96% of students, 97% of faculty, and 91% of staff fully vaccinated,” Ernst said. “This high vaccination rate is a key part of our community’s ability to return to a more normal campus environment.”
In an interview with The Daily, Cella Vanheest, Resident Advisor and Nursing senior, spoke on the prevalence and prevention of diseases among students in U-M residence halls. She said she believes mask-wearing, a common disease prevention method, is uncommon this year in residence halls, especially in comparison to the 2021-2022 school year.
“I feel like it was more prevalent last year because I feel like this year they completely got rid of the mask stuff,” Vanheest said. “I think it was even the beginning of (2022 when) they still had mask requirements.”
Vanheest also said people have begun to co-exist with COVID-19, thinking of it as commonly as contracting the flu. She said some people have stopped getting tested as well, even if they are symptomatic.
“I don’t know if there’s really been a decrease in (COVID-19 cases) or (if people now) continue on about their lives regularly,” Vanheest said. “Even if they get it or they just don’t even test because it’s almost become … like a flu where it’s just a vaccination you get every year.”
Daily Staff Reporter Amer Goel can be reached at email@example.com.