'A reminder that it never really disappeared': COVID cases tick up, but free tests available
BETHLEHEM, Pa. — The stretch of time from Thanksgiving to Christmas is typically when illnesses such as coronavirus, influenza and RSV ramp up.
Two of the Lehigh Valley's health systems are keeping track of cases and helping families to steer clear of uninvited guests this holiday season.
"What's happening with COVID is we're getting a reminder that it never really disappeared and similar to what we saw about a year ago, COVID cases have been increasing,” said Dr. Jeffrey Jahre.
Jahre is St. Luke’s University Health Network’s senior vice president of medical and academic affairs and section chief emeritus of infectious diseases.
There are easy ways for people to test for COVID.
“There's no reason why people shouldn't take advantage of it. It's free, and it's paid for by your taxes, and the government will ship it to you.”Dr. Jeffrey Jahre, St. Luke’s University Health Network’s senior vice president of medical and academic affairs and section chief emeritus of infectious diseases
Four free COVID tests are available once again to people across the country through COVID.gov. Those who did not order free tests this fall can order a total of eight tests to be shipped to their home.
“There's no reason why people shouldn't take advantage of it," Jahre said. "It's free, and it's paid for by your taxes, and the government will ship it to you.”
He said people should retest three to four days after experiencing symptoms to get a definitive positive or negative.
Health systems testing
Jahre said it’s typical for cases to increase this time of year as many people head indoors for family gatherings and holiday parties. But he said another reason may be contributing to the uptick as well.
"The current strains that we're seeing, have the capacity to be what's called immune evasive," Jahre said. "In other words, they can prevent some of the protective effects of prior immunization, or prior disease from taking full hold."
St. Luke’s does not just rely on the state Health Department or U.S. Centers for Disease Control data to keep track of cases. It does its own testing locally to keep track of the situation in the Lehigh Valley.
“What we try to do is take representative samples,” Jahre said. “We have, obviously, many different intake points throughout the greater Lehigh Valley.
"And we take representative samples periodically and we do our own sequencing in order to be able to be certain that the advice that we're giving is appropriate.”
“We have our internal dashboards about who's doing testing, what's coming back positive. We do have wastewater sites in Allentown that are checking for early signs of COVID, increases in the community, which is always helpful to us to sort of get prepared for what could be happening in the community.”Dr. Alex Benjamin, Lehigh Valley Health Network’s chief infection control and prevention officer
It's not only St. Luke’s that has its own way of keeping track of cases in the area. Lehigh Valley Health Network conducts similar testing.
“We have our internal dashboards about who's doing testing, what's coming back positive," said Dr. Alex Benjamin, Lehigh Valley Health Network’s chief infection control and prevention officer.
"We do have wastewater sites in Allentown that are checking for early signs of COVID, increases in the community, which is always helpful to us to sort of get prepared for what could be happening in the community.”
'They're not getting tested'
Benjamin said his network saw an increase in cases as soon as the holiday season began.
“We do have our little bump up in hospitalizations the week leading into Thanksgiving," he said. "We were probably at about 10-15 cases in the hospital total and just after Thanksgiving, just this past weekend, we're, like, up to 20.”
Both doctors said preventative measures, such as getting vaccinated, are the key to staying healthy through the holiday season.
Benjamin said getting an updated COVID shot, flu vaccine and, in some cases, an RSV vaccine can make the difference as to whether you’ll be well enough to attend upcoming holiday get-togethers.
He said to do so before you start counting down the 12 days of Christmas.
“Before you start that countdown, go ahead and get your vaccines. Make sure that you're prepared."Dr. Alex Benjamin, Lehigh Valley Health Network
“Before you start that countdown, go ahead and get your vaccines. Make sure that you're prepared,” he said.
“If you don't want to get all your vaccines at once, then maybe you really need to start thinking now about planning how you are going to space out getting all these vaccines in time for your travels and for your family gatherings.”
He said it takes about two weeks for the shots to be fully effective.
"One of the lessons is that prevention is still better than treatment,” Jahre said. He stressed the importance of testing for COVID because the current strains are harder to identify.
“The symptoms that we're seeing right now are different than what we saw in the initial effects of COVID when it first came out, and in some cases, they are rather mild, or they represent the same kind of symptoms that you might see in a cold or even influenza.
"So it's not always easy to differentiate them and so many people are assuming that they have a cold or a bad cold out there, and they're not getting tested.”