Respiratory illness cases climb, health experts recommend COVID-19, flu vaccines

As Johnson County sees an increase in COVID-19 cases, public health experts are also seeing an increase in RSV, the common cold, parainfluenza, and other respiratory illness cases.


Tate Hildyard

University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics are seen on Tuesday, June 23, 2020.

Lillian Poulsen, News Reporter

Testing centers and public health experts in Johnson County are seeing more cases of other respiratory illnesses compared to last year as COVID-19 cases decrease in the county but remain high.

Johnson County is considered an area of high transmission of COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC recommends that everyone wear a mask in public, indoor settings.

On Oct. 25, there were 188 cases reported in Johnson County in the last seven days, according to the CDC. The case rate per 100,000 is 124.39 for the county and there’s a 5.37 percent positivity rate.

While these numbers continue to remain high, Bradley Ford, clinical associate professor of pathology in the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, said cases of other respiratory illnesses are also increasing in the community.

“The most remarkable thing about last year is there were no respiratory viruses circulating, meaning there wasn’t a flu season,” Ford said. “This year we’ve seen a lot of respiratory viruses — we’re seeing as many common cold, RSV, and parainfluenza cases as we’ve ever seen.”

Ford said this year has hit a peak number of cases, dating back to 2017 when he started working in the UI Hospitals and Clinics Pathology Lab.

Last year, there were almost no cases of Respiratory Syncytial Virus, known as RSV, compared to 45 to 50 per day this year, Ford said. RSV behaves like common cold and causes mild symptoms, but it can be dangerous for older adults and young children who aren’t cleared to be vaccinated, he said.

Jennifer Miller, Johnson County Public Health disease prevention specialist, said the county hasn’t seen any flu cases yet this season but recommends people get the vaccine as soon as possible.

“We’ve seen more cases of RSV, common cold, and other respiratory viruses than we saw last year,” Miller said. “This goes to show that people were masking and being more attentive to social distancing and more cautious about being around other people.”

Despite the increase in respiratory viruses, Miller said it isn’t concerning. After seeing what Australia and other countries in the southern hemisphere experienced, public health experts expected to see an increase in respiratory viruses, she said.

According to the Australian Government Department of Health, there have been 550 cases of influenza reported since April 2020, compared to 3,000 to 25,000 cases per week over the past several years.

For people experiencing runny noses, coughs, fevers, and other respiratory illness symptoms, Miller said it’s best to contact health care providers. From there, she said following through with recommendations for testing is important.

“Most respiratory illnesses are going to have a very similar presentation, which is what we see with COVID,” Miller said. “It’s hard to tell without testing unless you know about a specific exposure that you’ve had.”

People should get a flu shot, and they are widely available at pharmacies, hospitals, and other places, Miller said. Anybody who’s uninsured can make an appointment through Johnson County Public Health for a free flu vaccine, she said.

RELATED: Iowa City schools looking to provide rapid COVID-19 tests for students

UI Student Health Assistant Director of Quality Improvement and Strategic Communications Lisa James said UI Student Health has a large supply of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. Now, UI Student Health is waiting for booster doses for Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson, she said, which they hope to provide soon.

“Everyone should get a COVID shot as we head into the fall and winter flu season,” James said.  “Students should also get their flu shots, as recommended by the CDC.”

James said flu shots are available and cost $62, which is usually covered by insurance. She said students can also charge this fee to their U-Bill.

Students can go to the Iowa Memorial Union Nurse Care Clinic without an appointment to get their flu vaccination, James said in a release. The hours are 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday.

James said students can call the main clinic at Westlawn, the main Student Health and Wellness location, to schedule an appointment for a flu vaccination, which has the same hours as the IMU clinic.

Because of the increase in other respiratory illnesses, Ford said he’s hoping to see a lighter flu season from November until April.

“Nobody can really predict what a respiratory virus season will look like,” Ford said. “This year, no one has predictions, but we know the safest and best thing to do is get vaccinated.”

Miller said the best way to protect yourself and your families is to get vaccinated.

“People can get the flu shot and the COVID vaccine at the same time,” Miller said. “Most people who are vaccinated and get infected will likely only have a minor illness compared to people who aren’t vaccinated.”

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