Health experts advise limiting contacts, washing hands amid respiratory infection surge

Influenza cases are on the rise while the amount of COVID-19 cases decreases. Photo by Grace Everett.

By Sarah Wang | Staff Writer

As people in the Baylor community head back to Waco from across the country, health professionals expect a surge in respiratory infections.

The “tripledemic” — a term used by health experts — is composed of three respiratory sicknesses: COVID-19, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and flu.

As of Jan. 11, COVID-19 shows a decreasing trend in cases and an increasing trend in deaths, seasonal influenza activity remains high but declines in most areas and RSV continues to affect younger children and older adults, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to Baylor Medical Director Sharon Stern, COVID-19, flu and RSV are all caused by different viruses and cause similar symptoms of respiratory infection, such as coughing, sneezing or fever.

“Every January, we see an influx of influenza and RSV, along with other viruses,” Stern said. “In general, healthy college-aged students do well with the three infections, but there are some medications we can give for symptoms.”

LaShonda M. Malrey-Horne, director of Public Health Services at Waco-McLennan Health District, said the difference in this situation compared to before is that it is the first flu season that’s been highly active since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve also seen an increase in COVID-19 cases over the last few months,” Malrey-Horne said. “Since October-ish we’ve seen a steady increase, and a lot of that has to do with us moving [to] the way we interact, as people are more in line with pre-COVID-19 measures versus the pandemic measures.”

Malrey-Horne also said that getting back to the preventive measures is one of the reasons for this recent respiratory infection surge.

“We’re doing the things that we used to do, and because of that, we’re in closer contact with people and spreading the virus easier,” Malrey-Horne said.

To help students prevent catching the disease at the start of the spring semester, Malrey-Horne said students who are feeling bad or having a fever should stay inside and avoid social gatherings. She also said she encourages students to get tested as early as possible and get vaccinated for a safe and healthy semester.

“Of course, you can always go back to masking,” Malrey-Horne said. “Those paper masks work wonders on preventing the spread of infection.”

Baylor Associate Professor of Biology Chris Kearney said he advises maintaining a safe distance when students move through a lot of people in crowded spaces.

“In general, you have to be within about two meters to spread the virus,” Kearney said. “If you’re in a big class, you just have to worry about the people who are about two meters around. But when the class dismisses, then you have to think about the throng of other people that you’ll have to travel through.”

Kearney said this preventive measure is a decision students must make for themselves.

“That’s just a choice you have to make about how much exposure you’re willing to take,” Kearney said.

Kearney said his top advice is to avoid large groups of people and limit the number of people that students are in contact with and to wash their hands more often.

Even though the virus cannot get through the epidermis into the blood system through hands, humans are continually touching their lips and eyes, and that’s how a virus gets from a door handle to the hands and straight into a mucus membrane and into the body.

To reduce contact with door surfaces in public, Kearney said he suggests using foot pedals or find other ways to open the door without using the hands.

“You look kind of goofy, but you do actually prevent transmission from a door handle into your mouth,” Kearney said.

In addition to the preventive measures students are able to take on themselves, Stern said the Baylor Health Center is also prepared to take care of students by adding urgent care appointments to its schedule.

“We are well prepared and have plenty of test kits and medications to treat students, and students can also access care through Telehealth appointments on Academic Live Care,” Stern said.