COVID, Flu Cases ‘Spike’ in Needham

January 8, 2024
• Health officials detailed the rising instances of COVID and flu in Needham and shared their reasoning behind the predictable spike.

Needham saw 190 documented COVID cases from July through December, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, but nearly 50 of those cropped up in December alone, according to data from the Needham Public Health Division. In the first five days of January, there were 12 confirmed cases.

Needham Public Health Nurse Ginnie Chacon-Lopez said the town is currently “hitting a spike,” which is typical for this time of year — in December 2022, Needham saw a recorded 157 COVID cases and 118 flu cases.

Those numbers, however, are likely “a drastic underestimate,” town Epidemiologist Julie McCarthy said. Most people don’t seek out medical care for the flu, and those with COVID often take at-home tests, meaning neither are trackable, she said. Flu numbers also tend to vary due to the effectiveness of the annual vaccine.

Nationwide, wastewater data trends indicate this recent rise is the second highest peak in cases since the original Omicron variant, McCarthy said. The prominent variant, JN.1, is a descendent of Omicron.

“It’s just a really infectious strain of the virus,” McCarthy said. “Really since Omicron, we’ve been stuck with really infectious strains, but I don’t think that the numbers are ludicrously high compared to previous years.”

When temperatures dip, people spend more time indoors, where “everything’s festering” in the air, Chacon-Lopez explained. Good ventilation is key, but there are factors that prevent that.

“It’s really great to keep the windows open, but it’s not feasible if, like today, it’s 21 degrees outside,” Chacon-Lopez said Friday. “Then to ask somebody who’s of a lower poverty end to get… an air purifier, those can be expensive. You can’t really say that to somebody who can’t afford it.”

Holiday gatherings and other fall and winter rituals — including back-to-school season — make for “a series of unfortunate events,” McCarthy said.

While vaccines don’t guarantee immunity, Chacon-Lopez said they do decrease symptoms and severity, which is why it’s still important to stay up-to-date on booster shots and the annual flu shot. The youngest, the oldest and the immunocompromised are most vulnerable, she said.

Briarwood Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center recorded a couple of COVID cases in the last couple weeks, but the facility is now in “good shape,” Administrator Biya Paul said. They maintain an isolation room, where patients who test positive can remain separate from others, Paul said, and whenever an outbreak occurs, they institute a universal mask mandate.

“Other than that, it’s typical staff education on hand washing, hand hygiene, PPE and stuff like that,” Paul said.

Illnesses are bound to spread quickly in care centers and nursing homes, and with immunocompromised patients, it’s especially important to respond effectively, Paul said. Briarwood is also taking some COVID-positive patients from the hospital “because we know how to take care of them,” she said.

Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Needham is reporting a rise in respiratory viral illnesses — Matthew Lee, the hospital’s medical director of infectious diseases and infection control, stated in an email that the increase in cases is similar to what other neighboring communities are experiencing.

“To help protect themselves, we recommend individuals get vaccinated for influenza and COVID-19, and for RSV if your healthcare provider recommends it,” Lee wrote. “In addition, wearing a mask helps prevent acquisition of these infections, particularly in crowded settings. We also remind individuals to stay home if they are sick and perform a home COVID-19 test, even for mild symptoms, and to reach out to your healthcare provider for treatment or further evaluation.”

A vaccine for Respiratory Syncytial Virus, or RSV, is intended for people over 60 years old and children younger than 19 months. The state does not track RSV cases.

To stay healthy, Chacon-Lopez advises residents to wash their hands with soap and water or hand sanitizer for 20 seconds as well as sanitize commonly touched surfaces, such as doorknobs, computers and tables. For the symptomatic, she recommends staying home, resting, calling a doctor and getting tested.

People also should be coughing into their shirt or elbow, not their hand, McCarthy added. This COVID strain carries similar symptoms with previous ones — headache, fever, chills and congestion — but there are reports of JN.1 causing sleeplessness, anxiety and mucus draining, she said.

Those who haven’t been vaccinated yet this season should know it’s not too late. McCarthy said those who receive their flu and COVID shots now will be fully immune by around mid January, and “there’s still plenty of respiratory virus season left after that.”

Though numbers will rise and fall throughout the year and are expected to drop off in the warmer months, McCarthy said COVID is here to stay.

“I think COVID is just a part of our lives now,” McCarthy said, “and inevitably, we will every fall see an increase in COVID and flu and RSV.”

COVID vaccines are available for underinsured and uninsured residents, as well as children 18 years old and younger through Needham Public Health. Email for more information.

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