DHEC Public Health director Dr. Brannon Traxler speaks at a press conference on Sept. 27, 2023.

South Carolinians now will have access to vaccines for all three major respiratory illnesses state experts expect to affect residents this fall. 

The flu, RSV — and now COVID-19 — always increase when the weather gets colder, state Department of Health and Environmental Control director Dr. Edward Simmer said during a Wednesday morning press conference with reporters.

But with the addition of a new RSV vaccine, this will be the first time that people can get vaccinated for all three. 

This is the fourth summer COVID cases have risen across the state, said DHEC Public Health director Dr. Brannon Traxler, who was joined by officials from Prisma Health systems. 

And while many people who catch the virus will experience mild symptoms, COVID is now easier to spread and still can result in severe sickness for high-risk individuals, Traxler said.

Eighty-two patients were hospitalized with a severe case of COVID in the first week of July, Traxler said. And up to 359 were hospitalized in the subsequent two and a half months. 

DHEC is now starting a Respiratory Disease Watch tracker that will continue to monitor outbreaks of COVID, flu and RSV throughout the fall and winter.

The tracker will identify which illnesses are popping up when – and in what kind of setting. South Carolina saw 24 COVID outbreaks in schools, eight in childcare and 212 in long-term care facilities from June 25 to Sept. 16, according to early numbers. 

Precautions are still essential to prevent hospitalizations and deaths, Traxler said. But she said she doesn’t expect numbers to increase to the level seen during the height of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. 

“We likely are going to continue to see late summer bumps and then slightly larger increases in the winter months,” Traxler said. “But combining immunization, immunity and natural immunity from prior infection, we really can continue to decrease the severe illnesses.”

DHEC isn’t recommending masks for all individuals. But people should consider their or their family member’s risks, as masks can help slow the spread of COVID, Traxler said.  

South Carolina recently saw its first death of the season due to influenza. Traxler said she hopes it serves as a reminder for people to take the flu and other respiratory illnesses seriously. 

“That is a sobering reminder that flu is possible,” Traxler said. “You know it is prevalent throughout the year. It increases in the winter months. But it doesn’t follow a calendar exactly. It did not wait till Oct. 1 to take its unfortunate first person. So that’s why we really encourage all South Carolinians to get their updated flu shot early.” 

The COVID and flu vaccines can be taken together, but DHEC’s Simmer said people should wait a couple weeks before getting the RSV vaccine. 

Prisma Health pediatric infectious diseases physician Dr. Anna-Kathryn Burch told reporters that children older than 6 months can also receive both the flu and COVID vaccines. 

She said many children missed necessary check-in appointments during the pandemic and are behind on a variety of important vaccines.  

“The more children that we get vaccinated, the better we can deal with viruses that spread around our community,” Burch said.

The RSV vaccine is recommended for people 60 or older. But Burch said a new monoclonal antibody is available for infants born during RSV season. The antibody will give infants passive immunity to avoid being infected in the future. 

Taxler said people also can prevent getting sick by consistently washing their hands and, most importantly, should stay staying home when they are sick. 

Simmer said all South Carolinians should plan to talk to their health care provider about what vaccines are best for them.