Flu, Covid and RSV are on the rise and already burdening hospitals
Flu and other lung viruses, including one that poses its greatest dangers to young children and the elderly, are spreading rapidly in an early-season outbreak that’s alarming doctors and burdening hospitals.
Flu and other lung viruses, including one that poses its greatest dangers to young children and the elderly, are spreading rapidly in an early-season outbreak that’s alarming doctors and burdening hospitals. Estimated illnesses from flu this season roughly doubled over the week ending Oct. 28 to about 1.6 million, according the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while hospitalizations rose at a similar rate to 13,000 and estimated deaths hit 730. (Also read: Doctors say respiratory infection RSV may surge this winter)
Though Covid cases are currently low compared to this time last year, other respiratory viruses are beginning to strain health-care systems that are still recovering from pandemic burnout. Unusually high cases of respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, are adding to the expected uptick in Covid-19 and flu as cooler weather moves more people indoors, where airborne viruses often spread more easily.
The US is “experiencing a resurgence in the circulation of non-Covid-19 respiratory viruses,” José Romero, director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said on a call with reporters. “However, it’s important to note that Covid-19 is not gone.”
For more than a month, children’s hospitals have been warning that their emergency rooms are swamped with young patients in respiratory distress, and some school districts have reported dozens of student absences. While shots can help stem flu’s spread, vaccinations in adults are behind last year’s count for this time of year by 5 million doses, US health officials said Friday on a press call. Flu shot coverage among children was relatively equal to that of a year ago, which still meant a 6% drop from pre-pandemic levels, officials said.
Health officials also noted unusual patterns in RSV, which causes only cold symptoms in most people, although babies and the elderly can suffer from serious illness. The virus is linked to 58,000 to 80,000 hospitalizations among children under age 5 along with 60,000 to 120,000 among people older than 65 each year, according to the CDC’s website. There’s no approved vaccine, although companies including Moderna Inc., Pfizer Inc. and GSK Plc have candidates in development.
RSV hospitalization rates this season have already reached levels not typically seen until late December, when hospital admissions normally peak, according to CDC data. And young children are being hit hardest, with kids younger than 6 months seeing the highest hospitalization rates, the data show. In Chicago, for example, RSV hospitalizations for younger kids are already well above levels seen during past seasons’ peaks, according to health department data.
This year, test detections are increasing in much of the US except for the southeast and south-central regions, which are being hit harder by the flu, according to the CDC. That’s a change from typical RSV seasons in the US, which normally begin in the southeast and spread northwest from there.
The increase in respiratory viruses “means that many hospitals are at or near capacity and it is beginning to strain health care systems,” the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials said Wednesday in a statement. Health officials are preparing to help states with additional supplies and personnel, but no states have asked for this support yet, said Dawn O’Connell the Department of Health and Human Services administrator for preparedness and response.
Still, health-care systems all over the country are sounding the alarm.
“I just got off seven days straight working in the hospital, and it’s a respiratory season unlike any that we’ve seen before this early,” John Bradley, medical director of Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego division of infectious diseases, said last month in an interview.
Respiratory incidence rates are running ahead of pre-pandemic levels by 50%, contributing to capacity issues in most markets, according to the Children’s Hospital Association.
“We simply do not have enough pediatric specialists to staff the beds in our children’s hospitals,” Mark Wietecha, CHA’s chief executive officer, said in a statement.
Ingenovis Health, a company that helps to contract out nurses at hospitals, reported twice as many requests for pediatric ICU nurses over the last month because of RSV outbreaks.
The swell of infections at hospitals is likely due to a confluence of post-pandemic factors: Health workforce shortages, the shuttering of less-profitable pediatric units, and young kids’ decreased immunity to seasonal viruses.
Even before the pandemic, pediatric inpatient units decreased by 19.1% and pediatric inpatient unit beds decreased by 11.8% from the years 2008 to 2018, according to a report published in the journal Pediatrics last year. Authors also found that nearly one-quarter of US children experienced an increase in distance to their nearest pediatric inpatient unit during the study period.