Hospitals across the country are being hit with a spike in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and influenza cases, while still dealing with a steady flow of COVID admissions, in what’s been dubbed a “tripledemic”. The graphic above uses hospitalization data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to show that each disease has been sending similar shares of the population to hospitals across late fall, with flu hospitalizations having just overtaken COVID admissions after Thanksgiving.
These numbers reflect that we’re experiencing the worst RSV season in at least five years, and we’re set to endure the worst flu season since 2009-10.As RSV is most severe in very young children, its recent surge has revealed another capacity shortage in our nation’s hospitals: pediatric beds. From 2008 to 2018, pediatric inpatient bed counts fell by 19 percent, as hospitals shifted resources to higher revenue services.
This strategy has now come to a head in many parts of the country, as RSV has driven pediatric bed usage rates to a recent high. (The Department of Health and Human Services’ pediatric capacity data only dates back to August 2020.) With three straight weeks of declining RSV hospitalizations, there is reason to hope that pediatric care units will soon feel a reprieve. However, flu season has yet to reach its peak, prompting calls for a return to widespread mask-wearing and a renewed emphasis on flu shots, given that more than half of Americans have not yet gotten vaccinated this season.
A storm of these proportions should demand not only crisis clinical measures, but also community prevention efforts. Yet instead of deploying public health strategies to weather the storm, the U.S. is abandoning them.
Even before the arrival of the so-called tripledemic, U.S. health systems were on the brink. But as the fall surge of illness threatens to capsize teetering hospitals, the will to deploy public health measures has also collapsed. Pediatricians are declaring “This is our March 2020” and issuing pleas for help while public health efforts to flatten the curve and reduce transmission rates of Covid-19 — or any infectious disease — have effectively evaporated. Unmanageable patient volumes are seen as inevitable, or billed as the predictable outcome of an “immunity debt,” despite considerable uncertainty surrounding the scientific underpinnings and practical utility of this concept.
The Covid-19 pandemic should have left us better prepared for this moment. It helped the public to understand that respiratory viruses primarily spread through shared indoor air. Public health practices to stop the spread of Covid-19 — such as masking, moving activities outdoors, and limiting large gatherings during surges — were incorporated into the daily routines of many Americans. RSV and flu are also much less transmissible than Covid-19, making them easier to control with common-sense public health practices.
Instead of dialing up those first-line practices as pediatric ICUs overflow and classrooms close, though, the U.S. is relying on its precious and fragile last lines of defense to combat the tripledemic: health care professionals and medical facilities.
Warnings and advisories recently issued by U.S. public health leaders, clinical leaders, politicians, and the media have consistently neglected to mention masking as a powerful short-term public health strategy that can blunt the surge of viral illness. Instead, recent guidance has exclusively promoted handwashing and cough etiquette. These recommendations run counter to recent calls to build on improved understanding of the transmission of respiratory viruses.
In the U.S.’s efforts to “move on” from thinking about Covid, it has created a “new normal” that is deeply abnormal — one in which we normalize resorting to crisis measures, such as treating patients in tents, instead of using common-sense public health strategies. Treating Covid like the flu — or the flu like Covid — has effectively meant that we treat neither illness as if it were a serious threat to health systems and to public health. Mobilizing Department of Defense troops and Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel to cover health system shortfalls is apparently more palatable than asking people to wear masks.
The tripledemic has already claimed its first child deaths in the U.S., adding to a large ongoing death toll from Covid. Allowing health systems to reach the brink of collapse will lead to many more preventable deaths among pediatric and other vulnerable patients who can’t access the care they need.
By any accounting, these losses are shocking and tragic. But they should strike us as particularly abhorrent and shameful because the tripledemic is a crisis that leaders, health agencies, and institutions have, in a sense, chosen. Over the past year, the Biden administration and its allies have repeatedly encouraged the public to stand down on public health measures, with the President even stating in September that “the pandemic is over.” By moving real risks out of view and failing to push for more robust measures to mitigate Covid, these messages have put the country on a path to its present circumstances, in which pediatric RSV patients are transferred to hospitals hundreds of miles away because there is no capacity to treat them in their own communities.
Living with viruses should mean embracing simple public health measures rather than learning to live with staggering levels of illness and death. Leaders in public health and medicine should issue timely and appropriate guidance that reflects the latest science instead of second-guessing the prevailing winds in public opinion. Instead of self-censoring their recommendations out of fear of political consequences, they should continue to promote the full range of public health strategies, including masking in crowded indoor public places during surges.
The tripledemic should bring renewed urgency to policies that will reduce the toll of seasonal illness on health, education, and the economy. Improvements in indoor air quality in public spaces, including schools, child care centers, and workplaces, can limit the spread of diseases and have many demonstrated health and economic benefits, yet the U.S. continues to lack standards to guide infrastructure or workplace safety standards. Paid leave enabling workers to stay home when they are ill can reduce the transmission of disease as well as loss of income, yet the U.S. is one of the only high-income countries without universal paid sick leave or family medical leave.
Greater effort must also be made to increase vaccination coverage for flu and Covid and bring an RSV vaccine online as quickly as possible. Only about half of high-risk adults under 65 received a flu shot last year, a gap that can be closed with more energetic vaccination campaigns. Reducing annual flu deaths using a broader range of strategies enabled by the pandemic — rather than pegging Covid deaths to them — should be the goal.
Amid the many sobering stories of the tripledemic, there is some good news. As the experience of Covid-19 has shown, it is possible to limit the toll of respiratory viruses like flu and RSV. However, this work requires resources, appropriate policies, and political will. Americans don’t need to accept winter disease surges and overrun health systems as an inevitable new normal. Instead, the country should see the tripledemic as a call to reinvigorate public health strategies in response to these threats to the health of our communities.
Many different respiratory viruses are circulating throughout the United States, but the flu is responsible for a “significant proportion” of that circulation, according to CDC, all while many hospitals are dealing with surges of pediatric respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) patients.
Flu cases continue to surge
According to CDC, 15 states reported very high activity of influenza-like illnesses (ILI) for the week ending in Nov. 5, while eight states reported high activity and six states reported moderate activity.
In addition, for the week ending in Nov. 5, 6,465 lab-confirmed flu patients were hospitalized, according to CDC, and the current percentage of outpatient provider visits for an ILI was 5.5%, above the national baseline of 2.5%.
So far this season, CDC estimates there have been at least 2.8 million flu cases, 1.4 million flu medical visits, 23,000 flu hospitalizations, and 1,300 flu deaths.
Three pediatric flu deaths occurred during the week ending in Nov. 5, bringing the total number of pediatric flu deaths for the 2022-23 season up to five.
While flu cases may be surging early, Lynette Brammer, an epidemiologist who leads CDC’s domestic influenza surveillance team, said there’s no evidence yet that the flu virus circulating is causing more severe cases than normal.
“The picture is pretty consistent across our different pieces of surveillance. There’s nothing there that makes me think that this virus is really different and causing more severe disease than we see typically with flu,” she said. “Flu can cause severe outcomes, but it’s not out of proportion this year compared to previous years. It’s not like we’re seeing a lot of hospitalizations without a lot of illness.”
In addition, Samuel Scarpino, director of life sciences at the Institute for Experiential AI at Northeastern University,said this year’s flu vaccine, “is a good match, which isn’t the case every year.” So, if considering whether or when to get a flu shot, “Now is a great time to do that,” he added.
Hospitals deal with surges of RSV patients amid rising flu cases
As the flu surges nationwide, many pediatric hospitals are dealing with surges of RSV patients. According to federal data, more than 75% of pediatric hospital beds and pediatric ICU beds have been in use for the past few weeks, up from an average of roughly two-thirds full over the past two years.
Brian Cummings, medical director of the Department of Pediatrics at Mass General for Children, said they’ve seen around 2,000 RSV cases in October and more than 1,000 in the first week of November.
“It’s been escalating and been quite severe,” he said, adding that, as of Thursday, his hospital’s pediatric ICU is full and seven patients are waiting to be transferred in.
Most RSV infections have been treated in urgent care facilities and the ED and patients are sent home, Cummings said. “But even if just 10% of those need hospitalization, it creates a lot of stress on health care facilities, and so what we are seeing is we’ve had over 250 hospitalizations for RSV alone on top of the other circulating viruses.”
Many doctors’ offices have started asking parents to treat their sick children at home if they’re otherwise healthy.
“The things that would lead to us encouraging a family to come in would be the very young children, particularly under the age of 2, specifically under the age of 6 months with high fevers,” said Rhonda Patt, from Atrium Health. “If the child is lethargic, isn’t able to eat or drink very well, or if they see any signs the child is having a hard time breathing.”
Patt added that families should visit their doctor if a child gets better and then spikes with another fever or starts having other symptoms.
“With the flu, there’s a risk for secondary infection, meaning ear infections or pneumonia or things that would need antibiotics,” she said.
Respiratory syncytial virus, more commonly known as RSV, sends thousands of children to the hospital every year in the U.S. But during September and October 2022, health professionals across the country have watched an unprecedented spike in the number of cases of this usually mild, but occasionally dangerous, respiratory infection in children.Jennifer Girotto is a pharmacist who studies pediatric infectious diseases. She explains how RSV infects the human body, who is most at risk and what might be causing this year’s outbreak to be worse than normal.
1. What is respiratory syncytial virus?
RSV is a common, RNA respiratory virus that affects about 2 million children under 5 years old annually nationwide. Researchers think that most children have been infected by age 2. Like the flu, in most areas of the U.S., RSV usually circulates from November through March and then mostly disappears during the summer months, with only sporadic cases being seen.
But young infants, especially those under 6 months old, born prematurely or with congenital heart, lung or other health issues are at increased risk for more severe symptoms. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1% to 2% of infants younger than 6 months who get infected with RSV require hospitalization. In an average year, around 250 children die from the disease.
The main reason RSV sends babies and young children to the hospital is because the virus infects and kills surface cells within small sacs of the lungs. The body responds by increasing the production of mucus and fluid in these areas. But the extra mucus can plug up and obstruct these parts of the lung and make it so that an infant doesn’t get enough oxygen.
A second common cause for hospitalization due to RSV is pneumonia, where a person’s lungs fill up with fluid. The pneumonia can either be triggered by the virus itself or by a secondary, bacterial infection. Finally, some infants get so sick that they struggle to eat and are unable to take in sufficient nutrients, eventually landing them in the hospital.
Health officials aren’t yet sure why the outbreak is so bad this year, but the COVID-19 pandemic may have something to do with it. Some research has shown that seasonality of RSV has shifted. In 2021, RSV infections started much earlier than normal, and over the summer of 2022, they never quite went away. One theory as to why RSV season is starting earlier and hitting harder is that, due to social distancing measures since 2020, an unusually high number of infants and children are experiencing their first exposures and infections at once.
5. How can you protect against catching RSV?
Like colds and the flu, RSV infections spread when people touch dirty surfaces or from respiratory droplets, when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
Early into flu season, nationwide flu activity is ten times higher than at the same point last year. Meanwhile, cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a virus most severe in young children and the elderly, have tripled in the past two months, with some children’s hospitals reporting “unprecedented” admissions for the virus. And most experts expect at least some winter COVID surge, possibly involving several different variants. The combined threat of these viruses circulating together has been labeled a potential “tripledemic.”
The Gist: Across the past two winters, the widespread adoption of COVID prevention measures, including masking and social distancing, kept the spread of other viruses at bay. But with return to normal life for most Americans, other viruses have returned to circulation—and with a vengeance, as population immunity toward flu and RSV has weakened.
While it’s hard to predict when and where local surges will occur, hospitals struggling with staffing shortages may be forced to hire more contract labor to care for an influx of patients—making this a potentially challenging winter for already stretched facilities.
Houston Methodist is reporting an early increase in flu cases, with numbers hitting levels not usually seen until the end of the year.
The hospital recorded 100 cases of influenza A and B in the week ending Sept. 21. A week prior, this figure hit 226.
“We experienced an early uptick in mid-September, which relaxed some last week, but still these are the sorts of numbers we usually see in December, not now,” Wesley Long, MD, PhD, a pathologist and medical director of diagnostic microbiology at Houston Methodist, tweeted Sept. 26.
Texas is the only state in the U.S. — outside of Washington, D.C. — that already has a moderately high rate of flu cases, according to the CDC’s latest weekly flu report published Sept. 23.
The early rise in cases comes amid warnings that this season’s flu season may be severe.
Doctors and scientists have been relieved that the dreaded “twindemic”—the usual winter spike of seasonal influenza superimposed on the COVID pandemic—did not materialize.
In fact, flu cases are at one of the lowest levels ever recorded, with just 155 flu-related hospitalizations this season (compared to over 490K in 2019). A new piece in the Atlantic looks at the long-term ramifications of a year without the flu.
Public health measures like masking and handwashing have surely lowered flu transmission, but scientists remain uncertain why flu cases have flatlined as COVID-19, which spreads via the same mechanisms, surged.
Children are a much greater vector for influenza, and reduced mingling in schools and childcare likely slowed spread. Perhaps the shutdown in travel slowed the viruses’ ability to hop a ride from continent to continent, and the cancellation of gatherings further dampened transmission.
Nor are scientists sure what to expect next year. Optimists hope that record-low levels of flu could take a strain out of circulation. But others warn that flu could return with a vengeance, as the virus continues to mutate while population immunity declines.
Researchers developing next year’s vaccines, meanwhile, face a lack of data on what strains and mutations to target—although many hope the mRNA technologies that proved effective for COVID will enable more agile flu vaccine development in the future.
Regardless, renewed vigilance in flu prevention and vaccination next fall will be essential, as a COVID-fatigued population will be inclined to breathe a sigh of relief as the current pandemic comes under control.