If last year's trends hold true, COVID could start surging again soon in Massachusetts, some public health experts say. They're urging people to get up-to-date with their vaccines as soon as possible, especially with large family gatherings on the horizon.
"Last year, our COVID surge really started after Thanksgiving," said Dr. Bonni Stahl, an internal medicine physician at Cambridge Health Alliance and medical director of their Covid Treatment Center. "And we do expect that COVID numbers will likely follow that same pattern. We have a couple of variants that we're following that we think will kind of surge this winter."
New COVID vaccines were made available this fall. Stahl said the updated vaccines are very effective at preventing severe disease.
"The importance of the vaccines is really that — despite the variants being new variants and new to our immune system — we do think that the updated vaccines that are available this fall will cover those variants very well," Stahl said.
With both the flu and COVID vaccines potentially taking two weeks to take full effect, it's best to get both of those vaccinations as soon as possible before any holiday gatherings, says Dr. Robbie Goldstein, the state's public health commissioner.
"We want Massachusetts residents to have a safe, healthy, and fun holiday season and part of that is getting vaccinated to protect yourself and those around you," Goldstein said in a statement.
For Stahl, her personal rule of thumb is getting the flu shot before Thanksgiving every year.
"Right before I start to gather with family, before I kind of travel to see my parents," she said. "And I think that's that's a good idea to help protect us, you know, to help protect us individually and help protect the community from flu."
Experts are also urging eligible residents to consider getting the new RSV vaccines, as well. RSV cases over the winter didn’t follow the typical pattern that pediatricians see each year: more children got more severely sick, and earlier in the year.
"We saw a bad RSV season last year," said Dr. Shira Doron, the chief infection control officer at Tufts Medicine. "We hope that we've built up some immunity to RSV in the population and we have more of a normal season this year — that would be nice."
There are two vaccines for RSV available now: one for people over 60, and one for pregnant women. Doron encourages everyone over 60 to consult with their doctor about the vaccine.
"Pregnant women should get the vaccine between weeks 32 and 36 of pregnancy to protect their baby against severe RSV — because we know that RSV is so dangerous for newborns, even more so statistically than for the elderly," Doron said.
Stahl emphasized that, even though there's a lot of immunity to COVID in local populations, it's still important to get updated shots.
"Most of us have had COVID at this point, and most of us have gotten the vaccines at different points over the course of the pandemic," said Stahl. "But I think really, because we see so many changes in the the virus of COVID itself, it makes it important to kind of keep up with these updated vaccines. And, you know, likely it's going to be similar to the flu vaccine — we, every year, should stop and think and vaccinate ourselves against the newer variants that we're vulnerable to."