Dr Jason Newland, a pediatric infectious disease physician at St Louis Children’s Hospital, is just waiting for his cold to start. “I can list about 10 people right now who have had some sort of illness in the last five days,” Newland said.
Indeed, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and influenza seasons have started months earlier than usual, amid the continued spread of Covid-19 and the common cold. The flu hospitalization rate is the highest in a decade, according to public health officials. Scientists have described the virus collision as a “triple epidemic”.
“This is an extraordinary event, and it is straining health care resources in many parts of the country,” said William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
Fortunately, despite their concerns, public health officials are not calling on people to socially distance and avoid holiday gatherings, as many did earlier in the Covid-19 pandemic, which has led to increased isolation and sometimes damaged people’s mental health. Instead, they say there are other steps individuals should take to avoid spreading the virus and getting seriously ill, as outdoor gatherings become more difficult in the winter.
“I think the vast majority of people can get together and do so safely, and there are tools to make it safer,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, epidemiologist and director of the Pandemic Center at Brown University School of Public Health. .
The populations most at risk from viruses are babies, young children and older adults, infectious disease experts have said. The non-seasonal spike in flu and RSV cases, likely due to social distancing and masking used during the pandemic, has overwhelmed children’s hospitals across the country, public health officials say.
At the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at San Antonio, there has been an influx of babies and young children with one or more of the viruses who are struggling to breathe and need supplemental oxygen. to stay safe and sometimes need to be admitted to hospital, said Dr. Rachel Pearson, assistant professor of pediatrics.
In addition to viruses, children’s hospitals also have to treat teenagers who end up in the emergency room due to self-inflicted injuries, and the numbers have increased dramatically over the past decade, according to the New York Times.
This volume of pediatric patients due to viruses and self-harm has forced healthcare providers to get creative with space in the hospital, Pearson said.
“Usually when you are admitted you go up from the emergency room to a regular hospital room, but if all the regular hospital rooms are full the child will remain” in the emergency room under the care of hospitalists such as Pearson and his team, who would normally see them elsewhere, she said. “Every hospitalist I’ve spoken to is facing” pediatric bed shortages.
As for adults over 65, Nuzzo is concerned because of the low take of the second booster of the Covid-19 vaccine. Only about a third of that population received the most recent booster, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It’s surprisingly low for this age group, despite the fact that this age group generally has high vaccination coverage,” Nuzzo said.
And getting the latest Covid-19 vaccine booster and the flu shot is one of the best ways to protect against viruses, experts have said.
“None of these vaccines is perfect,” Schaffner said. “Both are very good. They do their best to prevent complications, the more serious aspects of these diseases, so they are clearly helpful to the individual. Both also decrease, to some extent, the transmission, of so that they contribute to the overall health of families and communities.
Yet public health officials are not urging people to socially distance to avoid overwhelming hospitals as they have often been during Covid-19 surges.
But to gather more safely, they recommend people use rapid Covid-19 tests.
“As well as requiring everyone in attendance to get vaccinated, ask people to get a quick test the morning of the meeting and say, ‘If you’re negative, come celebrate. If you’re not, we’ll contact you on FaceTime,” Schaffner suggested.
The idea of staying home when sick also applies, of course, to influenza and RSV.
“If the grandkids become snotty kids — that is, they get sick with a respiratory infection — now is not the time to visit Grandma,” Schaffner said. “If you become ill, please do not go to work, school, gymnasium, church services or other community gatherings as you will be a feared spreader.”
Infectious disease experts have also recommended that people wash their hands frequently. Unlike Covid-19, RSV lives on surfaces.
Masking can also be a useful tool. But Nuzzo recognizes that many people no longer want to hide around their family.
On a ferry ride to a Thanksgiving gathering, Nuzzo sat inside because it was cold and wore a mask because it was busy. But once there, she and her family weren’t wearing masks.
Masking “adds security for sure. Just like opening windows, testing, running air filtration devices, just like gatherings outside rather than inside,” Nuzzo said. “All of those things always help, but I think people make different decisions about whether it’s worth it for them.”
Fortunately, there are indications that RSV season may soon peak and begin to drop, according to infectious disease experts. And for Covid-19, there is less vulnerability due to the number of people who have been vaccinated against it and have contracted the virus, Nuzzo said.
“If people want to be as safe as possible, wear masks,” Newland said. “We know it will protect people. And so I really think we have to make individual decisions and choices and then respect each other.
If someone says, ‘I have high-risk people in my house, I’d rather you wore a mask,’ then that’s what we should do,” Newland added.