An unusually early respiratory virus season continues to hit the United States, with a trio of RSV, influenza and COVID-19 cases overwhelming hospitals.
“This year’s flu season got off to a bad start,” Dr. Sandra Fryhofer, chair of the board of directors of the American Medical Association, said Monday during a press briefing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The flu is here, it started early, and with COVID and RSV also circulating, it’s a perfect storm for a terrible holiday season.”
But with levels of influenza illness at “high or very high levels” in 47 jurisdictions – up from 36 last week – there may be hope on the RSV front.
The CDC said Monday there were signs that RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, may have peaked in parts of the United States, such as the south and southeast, and may be leveling off in central America. Atlantic, New England and the Midwest. That’s welcome news after a higher-than-usual spike in cases for this time of year, with RSV patients overwhelming children’s hospitals nationwide. Last month, the Children’s Hospital Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics sent a letter to President Biden and Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra urging them to “declare an emergency to support the national response to the ‘alarming increase in pediatric hospitalizations’ of RSV and influenza.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said while these new RSV statistics are “encouraging,” hospitals are still overwhelmed with other respiratory viruses. More than 77% of inpatient beds nationwide are currently in use, according to HHS.
“Respiratory viruses continue to spread at high levels across the country,” Walensky said. “And even in areas where RSV may be declining, our hospital systems continue to be strained, with high numbers of patients with other respiratory illnesses.”
According to the CDC, almost all children will have an RSV infection by their second birthday, with symptoms such as a runny nose, cough and wheezing, RSV is usually mild and goes away on its own within 1 or 2 weeks. But RSV can also lead to more serious infections and is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children under the age of one.
Although RSV cases may be leveling off, influenza hospitalizations continue to be the highest we’ve seen for this time of year in a decade. The CDC estimates that since early October there have been at least 8.7 million illnesses, 78,000 hospitalizations and 4,500 deaths from influenza, with hospitalizations for the week ending November 26 nearly doubling from the previous previous week.
“Over the past two years with the COVID protective measures – wearing masks, washing hands, staying isolated – we really have had almost non-existent flu seasons, and so I think there is probably a feeling of complacency,” Fryhofer said. “We have forgotten how bad the flu can be. But this year’s season [shows] that it can get really bad, and it’s here, so people need to get vaccinated.
This year, all flu vaccinations are quadrivalent, meaning they cover four strains of flu, and this year’s formulation “seems to match the circulating viruses well,” according to the CDC.
People most at risk for severe flu include children under 5, adults over 65, pregnant women, and people with underlying health conditions. But among those high-risk groups, the CDC said they are seeing a drop in flu vaccination rates this year compared to last year.
Fourteen pediatric flu deaths have been reported so far this season, and the CDC said Monday that while they don’t have information on the vaccination status of those deaths, “very consistently, d Year after year, approximately 80% of pediatric deaths go unvaccinated.” .”
Over the past week, there has been an increase in hospitalizations due to COVID-19, “up about 15% to 20% week-over-week,” according to the CDC, with a large part of this increase in the elderly and those with comorbidities.
“We started to see the unfortunate and expected increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations nationwide after the Thanksgiving holiday,” Walensky said. “This increase in cases and hospitalizations is particularly concerning as we enter the winter months, when more people congregate indoors with less ventilation, and as we approach the festive season. , when many reunite with loved ones across multiple generations.”
Walensky said CDC monitoring shows people who received their updated COVID-19 vaccine this year were nearly 15 times less likely to die from COVID-19 than unvaccinated people, and were less likely to die. than those who were vaccinated but had not received an updated booster. So far, however, the number of Americans opting to get the new bivalent COVID-19 booster has remained low, with 12.7% of eligible Americans currently boosted.
Other infections to watch out for this season
Britain’s health safety agency on Friday issued a warning about strep A – or group A streptococcus (GAS), which is responsible for illnesses like strep throat and scarlet fever – after the bacterial infection was linked at the death of six children. Cases in the UK are higher than usual for this time of year, but so far in the US the CDC said it has not seen a noticeable increase in national scale.
Fryhofer said to stay alert and not be shocked if you have respiratory symptoms, but your RSV, flu and COVID-19 tests all come back negative – because those aren’t the only viruses we’re facing this season .
“People who test negative for influenza, COVID and RSV should be very happy, but understand that these are not the only respiratory infections that exist,” Fryhofer said. “People can still have regular colds.”
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