Hospitalizations for COVID-19 in the United States have increased for 8 weeks in a row.
Data from Florida and Georgia signal that respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) season has begun.
As for flu shots, experts say patients with long COVID should get them this year, although federal health agencies have not addressed that specific question.
Paul G. Auwaerter, MD, MBA, an infectious disease consultant, said many patients in his primary care practice worry about “the big three” — COVID, influenza, and RSV.
Medscape Medical News talked with Auwaerter, as well as family physician Santina J. G. Wheat, MD, MPH, and clinical pharmacist Spencer H. Durham, PharmD, about their approach to this year’s respiratory virus season.
They discuss how to handle COVID boosters, the use of Paxlovid, vaccine hesitancy, and the correct order of operations for patients getting vaccinated against all three diseases.
Paul G. Auwaerter, MD, MBA, clinical director of the Division of Infectious Diseases and the Sherrilyn and Ken Fisher Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland
Medscape: How should primary care physicians be preparing to handle what everyone is predicting will be a major surge in cases of respiratory infections?
Auwaerter: Although I’m an infectious disease consultant, I still have a small primary care practice. So, I field questions for my patients all the time, and many patients, especially those with health problems, are worried about the big three: RSV, COVID, and influenza — at least, my more motivated patients are.
People frequently ask if they need the COVID booster. I think that’s been something many people think maybe they can avoid. The good news is that the early in vitro data suggest that the XBB1.5x-based vaccine seems to offer sufficient neutralizing activity against the circulating newer variants since the vaccine was approved earlier this year. I am suggesting that everyone get a booster, especially those at high risk, because we know that the risk for hospitalization decreases based on earlier studies for 4 to 6 months after a COVID booster. We can simultaneously administer the revised COVID booster vaccine and the annual influenza vaccine. The timing is good, as influenza immunization should be accomplished by October or early November at the latest. Like many parts of the country, we in Maryland are in the middle of a COVID boomlet. I have issued more Paxlovid prescriptions since mid-August than I did all spring and early summer.
Medscape: Are you seeing a lot of rebound COVID in your patients taking Paxlovid [nirmatrelvir/ritonavir]?
Auwaerter: I think the frequency is probably around 10%. It has been quoted much higher — at 20% — but careful studies have put it down at just single digits. I think it just depends on symptomatology and how you ask the question. But I think it’s important that I try to persuade people to take a direct-acting antiviral if they’re in a high-risk category rather than tough it out. Increasing data suggest taking an antiviral also reduces the risk for long COVID. Also, we know that rebound symptoms are not always infectious virus. Sometimes, they’re just inflammatory. Unless a person is immune suppressed, they rarely have a culturable virus 7 to 8 days after onset of symptoms. So, for most people, I don’t administer second courses of Paxlovid, although I know some physicians do. One has to realize the risk for hospitalization from a rebound is tiny, and many people don’t even have infectious virus when they take the second course of a drug such as Paxlovid.
Medscape: You mentioned motivated patients, which seems to be an important factor to consider, particularly for new vaccines.
Auwaerter: There are always early adopters who are less afraid. And then some people say: This is a brand-new vaccine; I’m going to wait for a year to let this shake out, and make sure it seems safe. People more engaged in their health have asked me about the RSV vaccine. For anyone who has cardiopulmonary problems and other major health problems, I’ve advised it. But if someone’s in good health and 65 or 70, the RSV illness is probably pretty mild if they get it. For them, I would say the vaccine is optional.
For people over 75, I have been advising the RSV vaccine because that is a group we tend to see hospitalized with RSV; they’re the highest-risk group, similar to COVID. The older you are, the more likely this infection will land you in the hospital. You can acquire RSV even if you don’t have young grandchildren around.
Medscape: You have called respiratory virus seasons unstable? What does it mean, and what is the significance for clinicians?
Auwaerter: It’s less predictable than in the past. If you had a cough and fever, you could think it was influenza if you knew you had influenza circulating in your community. Maybe you thought about RSV for your immunocompromised or older patients, but we didn’t have any therapy for it anyway. I sometimes refer to the respiratory virus season as a cage match between the major infections. Last year, RSV came out first, and we got some influenza and COVID. What does the situation look like this year? I don’t know at this point, but we are seeing more COVID earlier. What’s different is we continue to have the emergence of viral variants of SARS-CoV-2. Also, with both influenza and COVID, it’s harder to make a clinical judgment about what people have.
I think we have to rely more on tests to treat these patients. Options include having point-of-care testing in the office for rapid results (molecular assays preferred) for both influenza and SARS-CoV-2 or home antigen testing. There are home kits that do test for both if influenza is known to be circulating significantly in the community. But there are still barriers. For one, COVID and COVID/influenza antigen kits are no longer free, although some health insurance companies do provide COVID kits free of charge. In offices, you don’t want to have ill people with respiratory infections in your waiting room unless you can isolate or have negative pressure rooms. Do you ask for masking in your offices? Telemedicine has been a big help since the pandemic in managing nonsevere respiratory infections at home; however, you must be licensed in the state to practice, which limits helping your out-of-state patients.
Medscape: How has the advent of in-home antigen tests changed practice?
Auwaerter: Home antigen tests have been groundbreaking in facilitating care. When I see patients via telemedicine, I don’t want to prescribe medications for influenza and COVID to people simultaneously. I want to pick one or the other — and now I’m able to ask for a COVID test or a COVID/influenza test if the patient or family is able to get a kit. Some offices do have real-time molecular testing, which is the ideal and the CDC-recommended approach, but they’re expensive, and not everyone has access to them.
Medscape: People talk about the “tripledemic,” but does doing so ignore the fourth horseman of the respiratory apocalypse: pneumococcal pneumonia?
Auwaerter: Pneumonia remains a leading cause of hospitalization, except we’ve seen much more viral than bacterial pneumonia in recent years of the pandemic. We’ve lost sight, and pneumococcal pneumonia is important, especially in older patients. What we have seen pretty clearly is a rise in group A streptococcal infections. This is another consequence of the pandemic, where people did not socialize for a year or two. There was much less group A strep infection in younger children, and even in adults, the amount of invasive group A streptococcal infections has clearly taken a jump, according to the NHS in Great Britain. Our pediatric practices here at Johns Hopkins are seeing far more cases of acute rheumatic fever than they’ve seen in decades. And I think, again, this is a consequence of the frequency of group A strep infections definitely taking an uptick. And that was no doubt probably from social mitigation measures and just an interruption in normal circumstances that bacterial and respiratory pathogens tend to circulate and colonize.
Medscape: Do you have any concerns about immunogenicity or side effects associated with receiving several vaccines at once?
Auwaerter: I think three injections at once is only for the heroic, and there is actually no guidance for getting all three at the moment. COVID, RSV, and influenza are not live vaccines. I’ve been recommending the new COVID booster and flu together, and then wait 2 weeks and then get RSV or vice-versa. A part of the reason is RSV is new. People have gotten COVID and flu vaccines before; they’re no different than in the past in terms of anticipating adverse effects. But RSV is new, so I’ve usually been recommending that as a standalone to gauge if there are issues as an RSV-booster may be recommended at some point down the road.
Medscape: Unfortunately, some people are going to see or hear misinformation that the COVID boosters have not been properly tested or proven safe. What’s your response to the patient who says something to that effect?
Auwaerter: My response is, the basic components of the vaccine are the same, right? If you have the mRNA vaccine, you’re getting the vaccine components, the lipids, and the mRNA coding for spike proteins, which has just been modified slightly to adjust to the Omicron subvariant composition. We do the same thing with the influenza vaccine every year, and we don’t see much change in the side effect profile. I think it’s important for my staff in the office and myself to be very comfortable to field questions such as these.
We try to inform all of our staff about a vaccine, especially a new one like RSV, just so they have some comfort level with it, whether they’re getting it or not. Vaccine-hesitant patients need very little to dissuade and to take a pass — to the probable detriment of their health and their family’s health. We know the influenza vaccine helps reduce absenteeism and transmission in addition to reducing serious illness in high-risk patients. Even COVID vaccine efficacy is not as robust as initially reported, falling from 95% to under 70% depending on the study — you are provided with protection against serious illness and hospitalization. The same goes for influenza, and that’s how we try to pitch it to people. Are they going to get the flu? Maybe, but you didn’t land in the hospital. That’s why it’s these vaccines are so important.
Spencer H. Durham, PharmD, associate clinical professor in the Department of Pharmacy Practice at Auburn University Harrison College of Pharmacy in Auburn, Alabama, and clinical pharmacist, Internal Medicine & Infectious Diseases, at the UAB Heersink School of Medicine in Huntsville, Alabama
Medscape: What is known, if anything, about the risks/desirability of giving three vaccinations at once to patients (particularly older patients) — flu, COVID-19 and RSV? Any potential vaccine interactions physicians should know about?
Durham: There are currently no data about giving all three of these vaccines together at the same time. However, there is both data and practical experience of giving both the flu and COVID vaccines at the same time. The best approach right now for these three vaccines would be to get the flu and COVID vaccines at the same time, then give the RSV vaccine at a different date. In general, they should be separated by about 2 weeks, although it does not matter in what order they are given (ie, patients could get RSV first, then flu/COVID, or they could get flu/COVID first, followed by RSV).
Having said this, there is no theoretical reason why patients couldn’t get all three at once, so if there is only one opportunity to vaccinate a patient, then it would be okay to give all three. But, if the patient can come for two separate visits, the recommendation would currently be to separate these. In the future, there likely will be data on giving all three vaccines at once, so it may not be an issue to administer all three at the same time.
Lastly, I would point out that the RSV vaccine is not necessarily recommended for everyone age 60 and above. The [CDC] Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends using shared clinical decision-making to determine if that vaccine is right for the patient. In general, the flu and COVID vaccines are recommended for everyone, although the specific COVID recommendations for fall 2023 have not yet been released. There are no particular vaccine interactions that are concerning with these vaccines.
Medscape: What if any special considerations are there regarding the storage, handling, and ordering of these vaccines? Should primary care practices take any special steps they might not already be taking?
Durham: I don’t think there are any special considerations that providers might not already be doing. All of the vaccines do require refrigeration, but each individual product may vary some on beyond-use dates or how long they are good after being reconstituted. All providers administering these vaccines should carefully examine the labeling of each individual product to ensure correct storage and handling. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has an online toolkit for vaccine storage and handling and can be found at https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/admin/storage/toolkit/index.html.
Santina J. G. Wheat, MD, MPH, vice chair of diversity, equity, and inclusion, Department of Family and Community Medicine, and associate professor of family and community medicine, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, Illinois
Medscape: What can primary care doctors/family physicians and their staff do to increase patient access to the vaccines? Any lessons learned from the earlier phases of the pandemic that might pertain not only to COVID-19 but also to RSV and/or influenza?
Wheat: I think the most important thing family physicians can do is speak with their patients about the importance of vaccines and specific recommendations they have for the situations of individuals and families. When vaccines started becoming available, I had many patients who wanted to hear from me — as their primary physician — what I truly thought and what I was planning to do for my own family.
I also think if our teams can know where vaccines are easily accessible, that makes it much easier for our patients. I have heard great stories and seen my own clinical support staff look at websites with patients to help them find the best location to get vaccines. In particular, about the RSV vaccine, I have had a handful of patients already come to ask me about my recommendations. When vaccines are available at my location, I find it much easier for my patients to be willing to get vaccinated. Similarly, if I am sending patients to pick up a prescription and they can get it at the same time, I have found success in them being willing to be vaccinated while picking up their prescription. In both instances, they do not need to make an additional stop; they are just able to be vaccinated while already at the clinic or pharmacy.
Medscape: Do you see any extra difficulties involved in trying to get groups of patients — in this case, older people — to be receptive to three vaccines, especially in this climate where it appears a growing number of people are hostile to immunization?
Wheat: Recently, I have found myself negotiating vaccines with patients not just with these, but as recommendations have changed for vaccines such as the pneumococcal vaccines and the hepatitis B vaccines. I think primary care providers can recommend all of them, but still help patients prioritize what is most important for that patient and family. For example, if welcoming a new baby soon, they might prioritize the vaccines for pertussis or influenza over the hepatitis vaccine with a plan to revisit the conversations later.
I have had some patients tell me they have gotten enough vaccines — and we know that even before the pandemic there was resistance to the influenza vaccine for some. I think we need to be prepared to address the concerns and, at times, the apathy. We also need to ask every time, because we never know which visit will be the one when a patient agrees.
Auwaerter reported financial relationships with Pfizer, Shionogi, Gilead, and Wellstat. Durham and Wheat have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.