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June 24, 2024

Flu Cases Surge in Tennessee Leading to Hospital Capacity Concerns

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Jan 3, 2024

Hospitals and medical centers across Tennessee are reporting a spike in influenza and other respiratory illnesses, leading to capacity issues and long wait times in emergency departments. The rise in cases comes on the heels of the holiday season and follows national trends of increasing flu activity.

High Flu Test Positivity Rates Across the State

The Tennessee Department of Health reports influenza-like illness activity at very high levels statewide as of the week ending December 24, 2022. The percentage of patients visiting medical providers with flu-like symptoms was over 5%, compared to less than 1% at the beginning of November.

Regional health systems are also reporting high rates of positive flu tests. Ballad Health, which operates 21 hospitals in Tennessee and Virginia, recorded 1,759 positive flu tests over the holiday weeks ending December 25 and January 1. This is a nearly five-fold increase over 383 positive tests two weeks prior.

In Middle Tennessee, hospitals have noted similarly high flu test positivity rates. Vanderbilt University Medical Center reported a 20% positivity rate the week of Christmas. Major hospitals in the Nashville area and surrounding counties have cited rates between 15-30%.

Emergency Rooms Filling Up

The rise in influenza and other respiratory illnesses is leading to capacity issues at hospitals around Tennessee. Emergency rooms are hitting maximum volumes, with long wait times for beds.

Hospital Average ER Wait Time
Vanderbilt University Medical Center 10 hours
TriStar Centennial Medical Center 7 hours
Tristar Skyline Medical Center 12 hours

Doctors report having to treat patients in hallways until inpatient beds open up. There is also difficulty discharging patients to long-term care facilities and nursing homes if they have active flu cases.

Regional health networks across Tennessee have cited high volumes leading up to and over the holidays. East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, TN’s only independent children’s hospital, has been operating at or near capacity for weeks.

Memphis-area hospitals were already strained due to an early surge in RSV cases affecting infants and young children. An increase in adult flu hospitalizations has further limited bed availability.

Multiple Respiratory Viruses Circulating

While influenza remains the predominant virus leading to hospitalizations, medical providers note multiple viruses affecting the population simultaneously. In addition to influenza A and B strains, RSV, COVID-19, rhinovirus, adenovirus, and human metapneumovirus (hMPV) are co-circulating at elevated levels regionally and nationwide.

Doctors note it is not possible to clinically distinguish between these various pathogens without lab testing. Symptoms of cough, congestion, fever, and body aches can signal any number of respiratory bugs – including simultaneous co-infections.

The CDC reports Tennessee among just seven U.S. states with “very high” levels of influenza activity nationwide over the last reporting period. Both outpatient visits and geographic spread of flu remain extensive based on public health tracking.

What Caused the Sudden Flu Surge?

Medical experts cite several factors that help explain the rapid acceleration in flu activity entering 2023:

  • Holiday Travel and Gatherings – Increased social mixing and mobility over Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years likely facilitated higher community transmission of respiratory viruses. Airports noted the highest travel volumes since before the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Australia Flu Season Preview – Australia experienced a worse than average flu season over their winter months from June-August 2022. Influenza A/H3N2 circulated widely down under, foreshadowing activity in the Northern Hemisphere. The U.S. is now seeing this strain prominently.
  • Relaxed COVID Precautions – Masking and social distancing dropped off significantly since last winter. These measures likely limited flu spread the prior two seasons. Vaccination rates also remain below optimal levels.
  • Viral Interference Fading – Dominance of the Omicron COVID variant last winter may have inhibited spread of other viruses like flu. Omicron outbreaks have now eased, allowing influenza resurgence in the population without sufficient immunity.

Pediatric Concerns Remain Regarding RSV

While higher flu vaccination rates in children may limit pediatric hospitalizations related to influenza compared to adults, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) remains threatening for the youngest and most vulnerable.

RSV typically affects infants and causes cold-like symptoms, but can progress to bronchiolitis or pneumonia requiring intensive care. It continues to strain pediatric facilities even as flu accelerates.

Week Ending % Hospitalizations for RSV (Ages 0-4)
December 25, 2022 21.9%
January 1, 2023 23.5%

Doctors urge parents to seek early care from childrens’ doctors, clinics, or ERs if infants develop respiratory distress. Resources remain strained so avoiding unnecessary visits is also recommended.

Mitigation Measures Still Needed to Slow Spread

Physicians strongly recommend getting an annual flu shot if not already vaccinated, especially for higher risk groups like seniors, pregnant women, those with chronic illness, and health care workers. While imperfect, the vaccine can still lower chances of infection and severe complications. Around half of hospitalized flu patients were not vaccinated this season.

Beyond vaccination, renewed attention to non-pharmaceutical interventions like masking and hand hygiene are warranted to slow viral spread at the population level. These simple measures saw little adherence over the fall and holidays.

Containing spread remains imperative even with viruses expected to peak in February/March to limit pressure on overburdened hospitals. Doctors urge symptomatic patients to avoid spreading illness when possible in public spaces. Rapid at-home testing for flu and COVID-19 can help guide isolation periods.

This late fall/early winter respiratory virus surge continues a “new normal” phase of the pandemic where heightened awareness of multiple circulating threats is needed annually. Avoiding complacency and doubling down on proven public health measures provides the best path towards managing this seasonal spike.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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