Respiratory illnesses like flu, RSV and COVID surge as holidays end
South Carolina is experiencing extremely high and widespread flu activity, with the state currently ranked the highest in the nation for flu incidence, according to newly released data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) . The high flu levels come alongside increased COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cases, straining healthcare capacity over the holidays.
“We’re at our peak right now,” said Dr. Brannon Traxler of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), during a December 27 briefing on respiratory illnesses statewide . She urged preventative measures like masking, hand hygiene and staying home when sick to mitigate further spread.
South Carolina and Louisiana are currently tied for the highest flu activity nationwide based on outpatient visits for influenza-like illness, at over 9% of visits compared to a national baseline of 2.5% . The early and intense start to flu season follows two relatively mild seasons during the COVID-19 pandemic.
High flu hospitalizations and warnings from healthcare providers
Flu hospitalization rates have spiked with numbers quadrupling over the past month in South Carolina. Nearly 500 patients were hospitalized with flu during the final December week according to DHEC, already exceeding hospitalizations for all previous seasons back to 2014 except the severe 2017-18 flu year .
Doctors warn this could be just the beginning, as flu cases typically peak in February and remain elevated through March. “Often we see things get a lot worse in January and February,” said Dr. Helmut Albrecht, an infectious disease specialist at Prisma Health. He anticipates local flu hospitalizations could reach 700-800 at the season’s peak .
Augusta-area physicians also addressed rising flu rates, noting “local ERs and doctors’ offices are slammed” . They encouraged vaccination and other protective steps like masking and limiting exposure.
Pediatric flu deaths reported as RSV vaccines remain scarce
At least three flu-related pediatric deaths have been reported in South Carolina to date during the 2022-2023 season. Over 20 influenza-associated deaths among children nationally were noted by the CDC during the week ending December 30 .
Health experts continue working to meet demand for newly-approved RSV vaccinations, particularly among vulnerable infants. However significant shortages have impacted South Carolina and most of the country. “We just don’t have enough right now to meet the demand,” said Dr. Traxler during the state briefing last week. She indicated federal coordination is still ramping up production and distribution .
|South Carolina Flu Hospitalizations
Table 1. Sharp week-to-week increases in flu hospitalizations seen over the holidays in South Carolina (Source: SC DHEC)
Actions urged to reduce flu and COVID-19 risk
With surging flu activity expected to continue for weeks or months, combined with persistent COVID-19 spread, health officials emphasize basic precautions to protect vulnerable community members:
- Get vaccinated for both flu and COVID-19 if not up-to-date
- Wear well-fitting masks in crowded indoor settings
- Wash hands frequently and use alcohol sanitizer
- Stay home when sick to avoid infecting others
- Call healthcare providers for antiviral medications if diagnosed with flu in the early course of illness
University and school communities are also taking actions like providing masks and preventative communications. The Medical University of South Carolina restricted visitors under age 12 and ramped up sanitization protocols .
Looking ahead, the flu season could last well into 2024 with the potential for another wave. South Carolina healthcare facilities will continue strained operations as they support influenza testing, treatment, and hospitalizations on top of persistent COVID-19 and RSV impacts. Officials say basic prevention and flu shots remain vital tools to reduce severe outcomes. They urge residents to consult with providers, especially those at high risk, as viruses circulate at extremely high levels in the state.
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