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The winter holidays are once again colliding with a surge in illnesses


The holidays are here, and millions of people are getting together with their loved ones this weekend. But they'll likely be joined by several uninvited guests - COVID, RSV, the flu and the old-school seasonal cold. Because is it a holiday without a surge of winter illnesses? For some guidance on how to stay healthy this holiday season, let's turn to Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House's COVID response coordinator. Thanks for joining me. Good morning.

ASHISH JHA: Good morning. Thanks for having me here.

FADEL: OK. So this weekend is going to be filled with people sitting around tables, eating, talking, laughing - basically a germ fest. So what advice do you have for people to both enjoy the holiday and be healthy?

JHA: Yeah. So first of all, it's obviously been a really difficult couple of years.

FADEL: Yeah.

JHA: Nice for people to be able to gather again safely. And the No. 1 thing that we can all do to make sure that we are gathering safely is being up to date on our vaccines.

FADEL: Yeah.

JHA: It really is. Both flu and COVID - we have terrific vaccines that have both been updated this year. And I understand for some people who may say, well, I'm gathering this weekend, is it too late? You know, still going out and getting it right now will mean that you'll start having some protection within about a week. And so that's No. 1. I think that's really important. You know, if you're gathering with somebody who's high risk, then taking a test for COVID before you gather can really make a difference, too. That's what we have done in our family - is when I gather with my elderly parents, just making sure no one's bringing along that uninvited guest. And then last but not least, certainly if people - somebody gets - ends up getting infected, making sure they get treated; Paxlovid for COVID, Tamiflu for influenza. We really have effective treatments. If we do these things, gathering safely becomes much more possible.

FADEL: Let's talk about Tamiflu and Paxlovid. I mean, the administration announced it's releasing more of the antiviral drug, Tamiflu, from the national stockpile. Paxlovid, is that widely available now for those under 50?

JHA: Yeah. So first of all, we have plenty of both of those drugs.


JHA: We have plenty of Paxlovid. Tamiflu, we've got this in the Strategic National Stockpile. We're releasing them right now because there is an increased demand. I do believe anybody over 50 who gets infected with either of these two viruses should get treated. Under 50, the evidence that it's going to be beneficial is just not as good, partly because people under 50 are at lower risk. Obviously, if you're under 50 and have chronic conditions, then that changes the ballgame.

FADEL: Yeah.

JHA: But certainly, anyone over 50 should absolutely get considered for treatment.

FADEL: You mentioned get vaccinated, but the vaccination rate for the booster is incredibly low - I think about 15% at this point. I mean, is there anything you're doing to get people out there and get vaccinated?

JHA: Yeah. So we've - you know, we've taken a multi-prong strategy here, right? And first, it begins with just making it widely available. So it is everywhere. You can get it at CVS, Walgreens, your doctor's office.

FADEL: But does it matter...

JHA: Lots and lots of places.

FADEL: ...If people aren't getting it?

JHA: Yeah, the second is trying to communicate to people the importance of this. You know, I think part of it is it's been a long pandemic. A lot of people think, well, I got my vaccines last year. Do I really need it?

FADEL: Yeah.

JHA: Reminding people I don't count on my last year's flu vaccine to get me through this winter. It's the same thing with COVID. You can't rely on your booster from six months or nine months ago to get you through COVID this winter, given that the virus that's circulating is so different. So, you know, and the last thing, Leila, is that we're really starting to work much more closely with trusted messengers, religious leaders, political, social leaders, having them really carry the message because it really is a shared responsibility to get Americans vaccinated this winter.

FADEL: In the few seconds we have left, I mean, we got some pretty upsetting news this week from the CDC. Americans' life expectancy has dropped for the second year in a row, partly due to COVID but also drug overdoses. Your reaction to that?

JHA: Yeah, I mean, again, I start with where I began earlier, which is it's been a very difficult two years for Americans. In the first year, we - I think I would argue that in 2020, we really botched the pandemic response. We're now at a point where these deaths are becoming unnecessary. If people stayed up to date on their vaccines and got treated, no one really needs to die. So we can do better here.

FADEL: Dr. Ashish Jha, thank you so much for your time. Happy holidays.

JHA: Thank you. Happy holidays. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.