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Albany County’s Dr. Whalen urges flu, COVID vigilance ahead of holiday gatherings

Albany County Health Commissioner Dr. Elizabeth Whalen
County of Albany

With rising cases of COVID-19 and concerns about childhood RSV, we’re once again confronting an unsettled holiday season in the Northeast. More than 1,000 days since the start of the pandemic, most emergency measures have been lifted, but vaccination rates still lag well behind where public health officials want to see them. Dr. Elizabeth Whalen is the Albany County Health Commissioner.

So, from 30,000 feet, how do things look to you right now?

So, it is respiratory viral season, and that is something that occurs every year. But we have, of course, placed more emphasis on this sense that COVID pandemic began. Right now, what we're seeing across the state and across the country are really high rates of influenza. So, that’s seasonal flu and we are seeing that rise rapidly and earlier than we normally see. In terms of COVID, we are seeing rates drop off a little bit but we know that COVID is still a concern as we enter the holiday season when people are going to be congregating. And finally, with Respiratory Syncytial Virus or RSV, we are seeing increased rates of that across the state and country too. And that is a viral disease that can affect people across the span of life, but we have particular concern with young babies in particular, babies that are born prematurely and elderly individuals who have chronic health conditions.

Are you concerned that in a time now, as we speak in 2022 when gatherings will happen, that is certain, that these case numbers could get to a troubling level again?

Well, I think that that's always a concern. But I think that you know, all of us have learned quite a lot in the last few years, in terms of behaviors that we can participate in to prevent these diseases occurring, and to lessen our risk.

So, let's talk about vaccination. Where do things stand right now in your county, in terms of where you'd like to see the numbers for both COVID and flu?

Right. So, you know, COVID vaccine, we have pretty good uptake of the primary series, but we are not seeing rates as high as we'd like for the boosters and the boosters of the Bivalent COVID vaccines. So, those are protective against the more recent Omicron strains. I would encourage people to make sure that they are up to date, which would include the first series of two vaccines, and then Bivalent booster and that is very protective against severe COVID disease. We are still seeing a fair amount in the community and with any vaccine, whether we're talking about COVID and flu, it's very important to note that it takes about two weeks after you get a vaccine for your body to create those antibodies that will then protect you against the disease. So, this is nationally, a week that we promote influenza vaccine, but COVID vaccine is also important, you can get both of those vaccines at the same time and if you get them now, you will have that protective element for the Christmas and New Year's holidays.

Has the flu vaccine brand taken a hit by the amount of vaccine questioning, skepticism, resistance that has accompanied the COVID vaccine?

So, I think people are more comfortable with flu vaccine because it is something that we've employed for many years. What people are often concerned about with flu vaccine is, does it match the circulating strains? And I think that that's some good news because the flu vaccine that's out now does match the strains that we're seeing circulating. So, that does suggest that it will offer good protection.

What about polio? Polio had been a growing concern in areas of New York state. Do you see any of it in Albany County?

So luckily, we have not seen any polio in Albany County but you know, even one case of polio is too much and unfortunately, a case downstate did result in paralysis. So, we really want to make sure that parents are looking to ensure that their children's vaccines are up to date, have those conversations with pediatricians and make sure that your vaccinations are up to date.

Are there any other emerging diseases that give you pause right now?

Well, we're always on the lookout. I think right now we do have our hands full with the amount of COVID, RSV and influenza we've seen. As you know, there was a public health emergency around m-pox, which we have seen considerably drop off. So, I think that that's good news. But you know, we're always really on the lookout for the next communicable disease around the corner, and really want to stress for the public, that so many of the measures that we have employed for protection with COVID, will protect you against other viral diseases as well. So, when you talk about general preventive strategies, the most important thing is to look at your general health. How is your general health? Are you managing any chronic conditions that you have, such as hypertension, diabetes or asthma? And then, really, it is about those preventive efforts of vaccination and behavior. So, coming close to the holidays, it's important to note that both flu and COVID can be transmitted before individuals are symptomatic. So, if you're considering mass transit, I would recommend considering masking on mass transit, if you're going to be shoulder to shoulder with a lot of people in a cramped space, before you go home and get to that family gathering. I also think hand hygiene is still very important and make sure you cover your cough and if you're symptomatic, to stay home and be mindful of those that you may be gathering with that may have a higher risk than you. So, all of those things are important considerations, certainly coming into the holiday season, but in general with communicable diseases.

How does the average person know or how should they handle what in the past they might have written off as, you know, gee, I woke up with a cold or a runny nose that day and I'm going to go about my business as best I can, drink some OJ and not freak out versus now? For the last three years, we've been hearing so much about airborne diseases and viruses and so on. So, what should somebody do, if they don't feel 100% but it might not necessarily be COVID?

Right. Well, I think with COVID, we do have widespread availability of rapid tests, which are usually pretty good at detecting active disease, although sometimes very early on in the course of disease, you can get a negative test and if your symptoms persist, you should be testing within 24 to 48 hours after that initial test. So, I would recommend testing. Flu, generally, it hits you like a bus. People know they have flu because they might feel fine one minute, and then they develop high fevers and really feel generally unwell. So, that tends to be less of a guessing game, when people are feeling unwell. But I think the testing strategy is important, and really just keeping a social distance from someone that might be higher risk, if you're not sure and you're feeling a little bit under the weather.

Now that schools are operating with minimal to no COVID restrictions, do you have any concerns about students going home for an extended break, gathering with different groups of people, maybe traveling? Is there any sort of disease vector tied to that dynamic that might be new this year?

Well, I think that's the way that these diseases that we're talking about can spread and particularly when people are using mass transit to come home, they can be at higher risk of bringing something unwanted back into the family space over the holidays. But it really is just about being mindful. These are things that we have learned over the past few years. I think that we are in a pretty good space this year to be able to get together. We are seeing COVID rates decrease in Albany County. Right now, we are at low transmission and that could certainly change, but it's encouraging. But the flu right now is where we're really seeing the highest prevalence of disease in the community.

Dr. Whalen, would you like to be in New York State Health Commissioner Whalen?

Oh, goodness. I'm very happy with the job that I have. Thank you. Thank you for saying that.

Were you surprised at all to see Mary Bassett leaving and how does it impact your office interacting with the state?

So, I suppose I was surprised. I think Commissioner Bassett has been doing an amazing job during her tenure, and in particular, she has really advanced the collaboration between the State Health Department and the local health departments. In fact, when I first met her, I said, “Oh, we'd love for you to come tour the Albany County Department of Health.” Sure enough, she made an appointment and came right to us and really was quite involved in interested in meeting staff here at the department, which, I just have a lot of admiration for that. So, right now, we do have a very strong, robust association of county health officials, which includes all the county commissioners and directors from all the counties in New York state. So, we do have, and we have great ongoing conversations with the deputy commissioner at the state. So, I think right now, we're in good shape, but we will certainly be looking towards who will be replacing Dr. Bassett.

Is there a certain type of characteristic you'd like to see in such a candidate? Do you have a wish list?

Well, I mean, I'm hopeful that it will be somebody that has previous experience in government public health, and who is willing to continue the collaborative efforts that were brought about through the tenure of Dr. Bassett.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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