As people across the country prepare for holiday celebrations, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention is urging anyone who hasn’t gotten the latest vaccines against respiratory viruses to do so now to avoid getting sick and spreading illness. For the first time, there are vaccines available to protect against Covid-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV. But there is an “urgent need” to boost vaccination coverage amid increasing levels of respiratory disease, the CDC said in an official health advisory last week. Vaccination rates in children and adults remain low as virus activity increases. Dr Peter Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Centre for Vaccine Development and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, says he shares the CDC’s sentiments specifically concerning Covid-19. Hotez notes that the confluence of a new subvariant, low vaccination rates and increased Covid-19 hospitalisations could lead to a “pretty serious Covid wave” as we head into the new year.

What you can do

“Vaccination remains the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones against serious outcomes of these viral respiratory illnesses,” the CDC notes. Vaccines can help reduce the strain put on hospitals by overwhelming patient numbers.

“If [you’ve] been vaccinated before, you will get protective immunity from high virus-neutralising antibodies about two weeks after the immunisation,” he said.

And even if you have zero protection against Covid-19, there are myriad precautions you can take to try to evade infection, like wearing a high-quality mask – like an N95 – in crowded spaces such as the airport.

Masking is key in areas with limited ventilation and airflow, such as stuffy jet bridges where passengers stand while waiting to board a flight. Chin-Hong stresses that masks should also be worn on flights, even if there is good ventilation, as an added layer of protection from people who are coughing and sneezing. If you happen to be infected with a respiratory virus but haven’t developed many symptoms, masks can also protect other unvaccinated people. “I know we think about masking as something that people do when they don’t want to get [sick], but if you have mild symptoms, wearing a mask is going to prevent other people from getting what you have, even if it’s a common cold,” Chin-Hong said.

Handwashing is a good habit to practice year-round, but especially during the holidays, he says. If soap and water aren’t available, hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol can kill many germs, according to the CDC. It’s also a good rule of thumb to avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth to avoid spreading germs. If you’re feeling under the weather but not sure what germ you might have, getting tested for Covid-19, flu and RSV is a good first step, says Chin-Hong.

You can get checked for the flu and RSV at your local doctor’s office or urgent care with a rapid antigen test that often yields results in less than an hour.

Chin-Hong and Hotez agree that the earlier you know what you have, the earlier you can treat it. Antiviral drugs Paxlovid and Tamiflu can help shorten a Covid-19 or flu infection, respectively, but they work best when taken as soon as possible after symptoms start.

All of these practices should be top of mind when traveling to see young, elderly or at-risk relatives, such as those with compromised immune systems or pregnant people.

Vaccination rates remain low

Everyone six months and older should get the updated Covid-19 vaccine and a flu shot, the CDC recommends. Both are available now at retail pharmacy chains like CVS and Walgreens, and you can get them at the same time.

The CDC is also encouraging people 60 and older to get one of the two RSV vaccines introduced this year as soon as possible.

Hotez maintains that vaccinations are the single most impactful thing you can do to keep yourself and others safe, but he points out that many Americans are not aware that there are new vaccines on the market – particularly the Covid-19 vaccine.