Upper respiratory illnesses are beginning to spread on campus and around Philadelphia at higher rates than in previous years.
The flu and respiratory syncytial virus are on the rise following the relaxation of COVID-19 prevention measures, such as social distancing and mask-wearing, Associate Director of Public Health and Wellbeing told The Daily Pennsylvanian. This is the first winter in which community members will not be required to mask on campus since 2019.
At this point last year — from Nov. 28 to Dec. 4, 2021 — amid an uptick in COVID-19 cases and positivity rate on campus, the University required student groups to cancel all social events for the remainder of the fall 2021.
Although the threat of COVID-19 on campus has faded, Huxta said she continues to recommend various precautionary measures to avoid becoming sick, especially before final exams, including practicing good hand-washing hygiene and staying in when not feeling well.
“Even if you’re not staying home, but you’re not feeling well, you should put a mask on," Huxta said. "That’s something that we learned from COVID-19, and everyone is very comfortable with doing it when they’re starting to not feel well."
Chief Wellness Officer Benoit Dubé said that although there has been an increase in upper respiratory illnesses, the rise is not driven by an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases.
Dubé also said that he has recognized a “surprising number” of cases of RSV, an illness usually found in younger patients, which is now manifesting in adults and college students.
“COVID has created a seismic shift in the way respiratory illnesses are presented — why we’re seeing now what we would have expected five to six weeks from now,” Dubé said.
Dubé added that current trends fall in line with the data from the Southern Hemisphere, which experiences the respiratory illness season earlier than the Northern Hemisphere, with the sole exception of RSV cases, which remain “an enigma.”
“The best advice — as we’re still learning and trying to decipher these new patterns — is to modify your travel plans in two ways," Dubé said. "First, make sure you are boosted against COVID-19 if you’re eligible, and make sure you have a flu shot. Second, pack a mask, because if you get a sniffle, it’s better to add an additional layer of protection so that the people you love aren’t accidentally exposed to whatever bug you may be carrying."
Regarding the annual flu, Dubé said he is seeing the beginnings of the uptick reflected from the Southern Hemisphere, but reassured that the flu shot this year is “quite effective.” It provides adequate protection, minimizing symptoms, lessening symptom duration, and preventing hospitalization for the vulnerable, according to Dubé.
This year, Penn vaccinated over 11,000 members of the community at its annual flu clinic in October.
“We use a little bit of a guessing game every year if we can match what the flu virus will be like, and we’ve done better this year compared to other years,” Dubé said.