‘Tripledemic:’ COVID, flu, RSV taxing health system as CDC urges taking precautions

‘It’s that time of year,’ says American Medical Association board chair

FILE - A flu vaccine is readied at the L.A. Care and Blue Shield of California Promise Health Plans' Community Resource Center where they were offering members and the public free flu and COVID-19 vaccines Friday, Oct. 28, 2022, in Lynwood, Calif. On Friday, Dec. 2, 2022, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that 7.5% of outpatient medical visits the previous week were due to flu-like illnesses. That's as high as the peak of the 2017-18 flu season and higher than any season since. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File) (Mark J. Terrill, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

ORLANDO, Fla. – A perfect storm of respiratory diseases is increasing cases and hospitalizations across the U.S. and in Florida and could make for a terrible holiday season if more people don’t take precautions, according to the nation’s health experts.

Outbreaks of influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), combined with rising COVID-19 cases, has been labeled a “tripledemic” and is once again stressing the country’s already overstressed health care system.

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“The past several years have certainly not been easy and now we face another surge of illness, another moment of overstretched capacity, and really one of tragic and often preventable sadness,” Centers for Disease Control Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said this week in a news conference. “I know I speak for many when I say we could not be more thankful for the work (health care workers) continue to do every single day to save lives.”

Influenza

The CDC said flu season began earlier this year, and as a result, there have been an estimated 8.7 million illnesses, 78,000 hospitalizations and 4,500 flu deaths since Oct. 1.

Among the deaths were 14 pediatric cases.

“Hospitalizations for flu continue to be the highest we have seen for this time of year in a decade, demonstrating the significantly earlier flu season we are experiencing,” Walensky said.

The CDC attributes the increase in flu cases to lower rates of vaccinations this year, particularly among the high-risk groups:

  • Younger than 5
  • Older than 65
  • Pregnant people
  • Health risks

“I know everyone’s tired of getting shots, we’re all tired of booster fatigue. But understand, you can get really, really sick this year and ruin your holiday celebrations if you don’t get vaccinated,” said Dr. Sandra Fryhofer, board chair of the American Medical Association.

This year’s flu vaccine protects against four strains of the flu, two type-A strains and two type-B strains, and has shown to be particularly effective, the CDC said.

Fryhofer said influenza A appears to account for many of the outbreaks of flu across the country. The CDC said influenza A accounts for over 90% of positive flu cases they have tested.

Influenza cases map from the CDC. (CDC)

That’s also the case in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Health, which said influenza A H3 is the predominant strain.

The latest data shows while hospitalizations for the flu appear to be decreasing overall in the state, they are increasing across Central Florida.

Florida is still one of 47 states or territories reporting a high or very high number of cases of flu.

COVID-19

COVID-19, however, is also increasing across the country and in Florida.

Last week the Florida Department of Health reported the COVID-19 positivity rate was at 11.4%, up 3.4 percentage points from the last report on Nov. 18, with 18,761 new cases reported that week. There were 326 new deaths reported.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported 1,485 adult hospitalizations from COVID-19 Thursday. By comparison, there were 1,098 reported COVID-19 hospitalizations among adults in Florida on Nov. 4.

HHS reported 31,170 COVID-19 adult hospitalizations across the country Thursday, along with 812 pediatric hospitalizations. There were 21,540 adult hospitalizations in the U.S. reported on Nov. 4, and 655 pediatric hospitalizations.

RSV

Health experts are also seeing outbreaks of RSV across the country, though the CDC said cases do appear to be peaking in the southeast.

Respiratory syncytial virus generally has mild symptoms like runny nose, coughing, sneezing and fever, but it can lead to more serious conditions like bronchiolitis and pneumonia. Infants, young children and older adults are most at risk for severe illness and hospitalization, as well as adults with chronic conditions like asthma.

Most children are exposed to RSV by their second birthday so they develop some immunity against future, more serious cases. However, according to Yale Medicine, because of COVID-19 precautions over the last couple of years, many young children have not had that viral exposure, and are getting infected now. That can lead to breathing problems.

FDOH said RSV season tends to last longer in the state. Officials with the agency says hospitalizations peaked at around 800 in October and have been decreasing since then.

These are also not the only respiratory illnesses going around this time of year, and all of these conditions find attractive conditions for spreading when the weather turns cold and people hold gatherings indoors.

“We’ve always known cold and flu season is more than just flu, now of course we have flu and RSV that are on people’s radars as well with COVID, but again there are numerous other respiratory pathogens, viral pathogens that circulate at this time of year,” Walensky said.

Walensky said the CDC was focusing especially on the flu and COVID-19 because they have ways to prevent and treat them: namely vaccines for prevention, and antivirals for treatment and to prevent the case from becoming more severe.

The CDC is urging people who have not gotten the new COVID-19 booster shot to get it now so they have time to build up immunity. While the shot is not 100% effective in getting COVD-19, it is more effective in preventing severe illness and death and is effective against the newer strain.

“If you have received your primary series of vaccines only, you are considered fully vaccinated, but you are not considered fully protected. To be best protected against severe diseases this winter you should get an updated vaccine as soon as you can, so you are up to date on your COVID vaccine series this winter,” Walensky said.

Health officials are also once again asking people to take the appropriate health precautions: washing your hands, covering your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze, staying away from people who are sick and staying home if you are sick.

They are also recommending that people wear well-fitting, high-quality masks to prevent the spread of illnesses, especially while traveling on public transport.

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About the Author:

Christie joined the ClickOrlando team in November 2021.