UACES Facebook HOLIDAYS: Protect against COVID-19, flu and RSV during holidays
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HOLIDAYS: Protect against COVID-19, flu and RSV during holidays

By Rebekah Hall
U of A System Division of Agriculture

Nov. 30, 2023

Fast Facts:

  • Flu shot, COVID-19 booster help protect against new variants of viruses
  • RSV is also health concern, dangerous for infants and older adults
  • Wash hands regularly, stay home when sick

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(Newsrooms: With graphic)

LITTLE ROCK — As families and friends gather to celebrate the holidays, it’s important to protect against COVID-19 and the flu by getting updated booster shots for both illnesses. For older adults and infants, RSV also poses a dangerous health risk.

HEALTHY HOLIDAYS — According to Bryan Mader, extension health specialist and assistant professor for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, individuals and families should get their flu shots and updated COVID-19 boosters, consider wearing a mask at gatherings while not eating if one is not fully vaccinated, and wash hands regularly to avoid illness. (Division of Agriculture graphic.) 

“There are three important things we can do to help keep ourselves and our families safe during holiday gatherings,” said Bryan Mader, extension health specialist and assistant professor for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. “First, encourage friends and family who you will be seeing around the holidays to get their flu shots and their updated COVID-19 booster if they have not done so already. While we have seen a reduction in COVID-19 cases over the last several months, we are seeing an uptick in the number of flu cases and other respiratory diseases like RSV, which makes the flu and COVID-19 vaccines all that much more important.”

Mader said that secondly, if one is not fully vaccinated, has a weakened immune system or plans to be around friends or family members who have weakened immune systems, he or she should consider wearing a mask when not eating, or holding gatherings outdoors to reduce close contact with others.

“Third, and probably the easiest, wash your hands regularly,” Mader said. “We all became professional hand washers during COVID-19, and continuing this practice can help defend against flu, COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses.”

As difficult as it might be to miss getting together with family and friends, Mader said that “if you are sick, you should stay home and plan to make alternative arrangements, such as virtual gatherings, or rescheduling in-person holiday events until recovered.”

Protecting against RSV

Mader said that RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, is a common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia and can be dangerous for infants and older adults.

“On June 29, 2023, the Centers for Disease Control recommended two new RSV vaccines for adults aged 60 and up,” Mader said. “The single-dose vaccines — one developed by Pfizer, called Abrysvo, and the other developed by GSK, called Arexvy — were determined to be equally effective by the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. The vaccines are currently available to the public and can be given by your doctor or pharmacist.”

In August, the CDC approved and recommended the use of Beyfortus, also known as nirsevimab, which is a new monoclonal antibody treatment for infants and toddlers to protect against severe illness caused by RSV.

"Monoclonal antibodies are proteins that mimic the antibodies our bodies naturally produce,” Mader said. “While there is not currently an approved pediatric vaccine, monoclonal antibody treatments — such as Beyfortus — can provide an extra layer of defense that helps fight RSV infections and protect infants’ lungs. The treatment has been shown to reduce the risk of both hospitalizations and healthcare visits for RSV in infants by about 80 percent.”

Mader said Beyfortus has begun its rollout to pharmacies nationwide, although insurance acceptance still varies. One dose of Beyfortus can protect infants for five months, the length of an average RSV season.

A dose of Beyfortus is recommended for:

  • All infants younger than eight months in their first RSV season
  • Children between the ages of eight months and 19 months who are at increased risk of severe RSV disease, such as severely immunocompromised children, in their second RSV season.

Once the vaccines are available, adults aged 60 and up will be eligible to receive an RSV vaccine after consulting with their healthcare provider. The RSV vaccine is given as a single dose, and there is no maximum age for getting the vaccine.

“Adults who are 60 years and older should talk with their healthcare provider about whether RSV vaccination is right for them,” Mader said. “Your healthcare provider might recommend RSV vaccination, especially if you have a weakened immune system from illness, such as leukemia or HIV infection, or from medications, such as treatment for cancer or organ transplant, as well as if you have chronic medical conditions or live in a nursing home.

“If any of those apply to you, you might be at higher risk of severe RSV disease, and an RSV vaccine could help prevent serious illness,” Mader said. “Even if you had RSV infection in the past, RSV vaccination can help prevent future respiratory disease from RSV. Generally, if you have a moderate or severe illness, you should wait until you recover before getting an RSV vaccine. But if you have a minor illness, such as a cold, you can get an RSV vaccine.”

Get boosted for COVID-19 and flu

From around September to March — though the season can be longer in certain parts of the country — is typically the window for flu season, Mader said.

“As the weather cools down and people are spending more and more time indoors, including at larger holiday gatherings, flu is certainly one of the most common health concerns,” he said. “Flu viruses are constantly changing, so flu vaccines may be updated from one season to the next. This is to protect against the viruses that research suggests will be common during the upcoming flu season.”

Mader said everyone ages 6 months and older should get a flu vaccine every year. For those at higher risk of developing serious flu complications, the vaccination is especially important. These groups include:

  • Adults 65 and older
  • Adults with certain chronic health conditions, such as asthma, heart disease, diabetes and chronic kidney disease
  • Those who are pregnant
  • Children younger than five years, but especially younger than 2 years old.

Mader said it is recommended, and safe, to get both the flu shot and the COVID-19 booster shot at the same time.

While the COVID-19 burden is currently lower than at previous points in the pandemic, Mader said the absolute number of hospitalizations and deaths remains high. Older adults and people with weakened immune systems are at the highest risk for severe illness, but children and adults with no underlying medical conditions can still experience severe illness due to COVID-19.

“Last fall and winter virus season, people who received the 2022-2023 COVID-19 vaccine had greater protection against severe illness and hospitalization than those who did not receive that vaccine,” Mader said. “We are still at risk of COVID-19 because the virus continues to change, and new variants emerge. Additionally, protection from COVID-19 vaccines and infection declines over time. An updated COVID-19 vaccine provides enhanced protection against the variants currently responsible for most hospitalizations in the United States.”

In September, the CDC recommended a COVID-19 vaccine updated for 2023-2024 for everyone aged 6 months and older to protect against serious illness.

“The main reason to get vaccinated against COVID-19 is to protect yourself against severe illness, hospitalization and even death,” Mader said. “COVID-19 vaccines also reduce the chance of having long COVID. The updated COVID-19 vaccines are similar to earlier COVID-19 vaccines that were safely administered to hundreds of millions of Americans during the pandemic.”

Mention of brand names does not imply endorsement by the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

To learn about extension programs in Arkansas, contact your local Cooperative Extension Service agent or visit Follow us on X and Instagram at @AR_Extension. To learn more about Division of Agriculture research, visit the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station website: Follow on X at @ArkAgResearch. To learn more about the Division of Agriculture, visit Follow us on X at @AgInArk. 

About the Division of Agriculture

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s mission is to strengthen agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work within the nation’s historic land grant education system. 

The Division of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses.  

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs to all eligible persons without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.

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Media Contact:
Rebekah Hall