The United States continues to experience an unusually high and early rise in influenza and respiratory syncytial virus infections, straining a health care system trying to recover from the worst of the coronavirus pandemic.
As new coronavirus cases have leveled off in recent weeks, federal health officials warned Friday that they face high levels of other resurgent viruses as pre-pandemic life returns and many Americans, especially children, lack immunity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a respiratory virus advisory to thousands of health care providers in an effort to strengthen testing, treatment and vaccination.
At least 4,300 flu patients were admitted to hospitals in the week ending Oct. 29, the highest for the period in a decade and nearly double the previous week, data released Friday showed. The flu season started six weeks earlier this year, at a level not seen since the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic.
After enduring two consecutive winters crushed by an influx of covid-19 patients, American hospitals face the prospect of a third covid winter – this time, slammed on three fronts.
“With RSV infections on the rise, a growing number of influenza cases and the continued burden of covid-19 in our communities, there is no doubt that we will face challenges this winter,” Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary of health and human services for preparedness and response, told reporters on Friday. “But it’s important to remember…RSV and influenza are not new, and we have safe and effective vaccines for covid-19 and influenza.”
Respiratory syncytial virus, a common cause of cold-like symptoms in children known as RSV, continues to rise nationwide and is straining children’s hospitals. Trends vary from region to region; RSV appears to be receding in the southeast and west of the mountains as the flu increases. There is no vaccine for RSV, but Pfizer plans to seek approval for a vaccine given during pregnancy.
Health officials are bracing for the possibility that covid will again overwhelm hospitals, depending on new variants becoming dominant as governments have abandoned efforts to limit transmission and few older people most likely to contract disease serious are up to date on their vaccines.
Some health officials have described the confluence of influenza, RSV and coronavirus as a “triple epidemic”.
“Covid has impacted the seasonal patterns of all these respiratory infections,” said Tina Tan, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, where RSV cases are increasing and flu cases begin to rise. “I don’t think anyone really knows if the model will go back to how it was before covid, but it makes it harder to deliver the care people need when you have three viruses that can cause serious illness. that time.”
David Rubin, who tracks respiratory viruses for the PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said it was premature to declare a hospital crisis. A mental health crisis among young people and a national shortage of pediatric beds have made it harder for the health system to manage the rise in respiratory cases, he said. But adult hospitals are better placed to respond.
“It depends on when those spikes happen and how big covid comes back this winter,” Rubin said. “We haven’t seen a real acceleration yet this year in terms of covid hospitalizations. If you’re looking for a silver lining, this is it.”
The US government has medical supplies, including personal protective equipment and ventilators, but officials say no state has yet requested additional personnel or supplies.
“State and territory public health officials are urging parents and families to take precautions now in order to stay healthy and avoid straining hospital systems,” said Anne Zink, a Alaska’s top public health official and president of the Association of State and Territorial Health. Officials, in a written statement.
These precautions include staying up to date on vaccines, staying home when sick, and washing your hands regularly. Mask-wearing is often absent or downplayed in government recommendations, a measure rarely adopted in recent respiratory virus seasons but proven effective in curbing the spread of the coronavirus.
Lynn Goldman, dean of George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health who sits on a committee that advises CDC director Rochelle Walensky, asked at a meeting Thursday why agency officials weren’t recommending masking given the pressure on hospitals.
“At this point, nothing can be mandatory,” CDC covid-19 incident manager Brendan Jackson responded Thursday.
José Romero, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, mentioned properly fitting masks at the end of a list of recommended precautionary measures during the agency’s press briefing on Friday.
“If a family wishes, they can use masks,” Romero said.
The lack of exposure to other viruses when people practiced social distancing and wore masks to avoid the coronavirus contributed to the current situation, experts say.
“All of this regular exposure that usually happens and builds immunity year after year didn’t happen,” Walensky said Tuesday during an appearance before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “If you go two years without getting this infection, without getting this infection protection and all of a sudden, boom, everyone from zero to three gets RSV, you see the impact on the care of health.”
While RSV is a leading cause of hospitalization in young children, the virus also poses a greater threat to the elderly and immunocompromised adults. Despite declining coronavirus cases, doctors say medically vulnerable people should consider taking heightened precautions due to the circulation of other respiratory viruses.
“If you are at higher risk, do not enter these high-risk areas or mask if you must travel to these areas with an N95,” Aaron Glatt, chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai South Nassau told New York.
For flu season, the strain on hospitals may not be as debilitating to the healthcare system if cases are mild enough and patients are discharged quickly. Lynnette Brammer, an epidemiologist who leads the CDC’s national flu surveillance team, said officials have yet to see evidence of a more virulent flu strain.
“At the moment we don’t see anything that would lead us to believe it’s more serious,” Brammer said Friday. “It’s just early.”