‘Respiratory viral season’ is on its way

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Fall marks the beginning of “respiratory viral season,” when viruses like influenza, Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) and now, COVID-19 are prominent. Knowing what to do during this time of the year can help prevent the spread of these potentially harmful viruses.  

On Sept. 12 the CDC approved an updated COVID vaccine for anyone 6-months and older to help protect against new variations of the virus. These vaccines have been distributed to local pharmacies across the U.S.  

Patients are eligible for the booster two months after their most recent vaccine. Patients are allowed to receive the booster and flu shot at the same time.  

WCU’s Health Services plans to work with Walgreens to make the updated vaccine available to any student, faculty or staff member on WCU’s main campus. According to Pam Buchanan, Director of Health Services, the clinic is planned to take place before fall break (Oct. 16-20). Buchanan also plans to have flu shots available at the clinic.  

Photo by Liam Bridgeman

New COVID-19 variants 

New variants of the COVID-19 virus have begun spreading at a rapid rate across the world. Dr. Susan Kansagra, North Carolina’s state health officer and the assistant secretary for public health at the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) says the variant that is spreading the most, called “BA.2.86” has more mutations than previous variants.  

This led to many questions surrounding current measures and their effectiveness toward rapidly changing viruses like BA.2.86. Kansagra says we can rest assured that current measures are still effective.  

“Everything we have available to us, including testing, treatment and vaccines are still effective against this variant,” Kansagra said.  

According to both Kansagra and Buchanan, symptoms of COVID closely resemble seasonal allergies or flu-like symptoms. A light cough, runny nose, and fatigue are common symptoms of the virus. Kansagra urges patients to stock up on at-home tests so you can know for sure if you have COVID.  

 Tracking COVID-19 

Although preventative measures are still effective, BA.2.86 and the other variants are spreading rapidly.  

Since May, NCDHHS has halted tracking individual COVID cases and has shifted to tracking COVID hospital admissions, emergency room visits for respiratory viruses and COVID particles in wastewater. 

Hospitalizations and emergency room visits track the severity of the illness, while wastewater tracking shows the spreading of the virus throughout communities.   

While hospitalizations and emergency visits in the state have slowly begun increasing since the start of August, wastewater monitoring of the virus has increased slightly but has since levelled out as of Oct. 8.  

Wastewater monitoring of COVID was developed to track trends within communities rather than focus on individual cases. According to Kansagra, this becomes an especially important source of information now that a majority of testing is performed at home.  

Kansagra says, SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, is present in the waste of infected individuals. Individual wastewater treatment facilities then test the water for that particle showing the trend for the community as a whole. 

The entity that controls WCU’s wastewater, the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority, was part of the initial pilot project testing wastewater for these particles.  

 Current COVID-19 Guidelines 

The current CDC guidelines state the first five days of COVID are the most contagious, so patients are instructed to isolate at home. The next five days following isolation, patients are recommended to wear a mask. 

According to Kansagra, those that are immunocompromised against COVID should still be cautious.  

The CDC says COVID-immunocompromised people “have a weakened immune system [and] are more likely to get sick with COVID-19 or be sick for a longer period.” The full list of medical conditions that can deem a person at-risk can be found on the CDC’s website. 

If an immunocompromised person contracts COVID, medications are available to treat the symptoms and prevent severe disease, particularly when treatment is started early. Paxlovid is an antiviral medication used to fight COVID. Kansagra says Paxlovid is currently being stocked by pharmacies around the country.  

WCU health services does not have the medication, but Buchanan says health services can write a prescription for those that need to medication to be picked up at a local pharmacy. 

 COVID-19 at WCU 

Buchanan says if a student calls health services with mild, allergy-like symptoms, they will recommend an at-home test from Bird. These tests can be found on the first floor of the building just outside of the reception desk. Many at-home test expiration dates were extended by the FDA so students should not be concerned with the expiration date on the tests at Bird. 

If a student tests positive for COVID, documentation of a positive test needs to be sent to student affairs so that an email can be sent out to the students’ professors, acknowledging they are dealing with a health-related issue.  

Buchanan, like many other health officials, is urging students to get vaccinated against viral illnesses like COVID and the flu.

Traces of SARS-CoV-2 in the wastewater samples taken by the Tuckasegee Water and Sewer Authority began increasing in late August but has since leveled out.