A dangerous surge of respiratory illnesses including COVID-19, the flu, and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) has led to rising hospitalizations and concerns of a “tripledemic” across the United States this winter.
Holiday Gatherings Drive Up Transmission
The current increase in cases stems from holiday gatherings and travel over late 2022, according to health experts. Christmas and New Year’s celebrations brought large groups of people together, facilitating rapid community spread of the viruses.
“The increased circulation we’re now seeing is likely a reflection of holiday gathering and people letting down their guard with masking and other preventative measures,” said Dr. Natasha Bhuyan, a practicing family physician.
While each virus on its own can pose risks, simultaneous infection further strains the healthcare system and endangers vulnerable populations.
“The possibility of a ‘tripledemic’ – COVID-19, the flu, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) circulating intensely at the same time – raises the concern for a perfect storm for our healthcare system,” said Dr. José R. Romero, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Cases and Hospitalizations Hit Multi-Year Highs
According to CDC tracking, weekly cases of flu are the highest at this point in the season since 2010. Meanwhile, COVID-19 hospital admissions are approaching last winter’s peak per the Department of Health and Human Services.
|Jan 7, 2023
|4.4 per 100k
|Dec 31, 2022
|3.8 per 100k
|Dec 24, 2022
|1.8 per 100k
Child RSV hospitalizations are over 5 times higher than this week last year. These figures showcase a steep incline in illnesses that is pushing some hospitals to near or full capacity.
Health Officials Brace For More In Coming Weeks
The full effects of holiday gathering and travel have likely yet to be seen. Cases often lag exposures by around two weeks.
CDC tracking shows 38 states with “very high” or “extremely high” respiratory illness activity as of January 7th. This represents a dramatic rise from only 16 states with elevated activity two weeks prior.
Health officials nationwide are preparing for further increases and potential strain on healthcare systems. Protective equipment supplies are being stockpiled, visitor limitations enacted, and additional staff recruited by some providers.
“We expect cases to continue to rise for at least the next few weeks,” said Dr. Raquel Bono, Chief Medical Officer at UC Davis Health. “Both COVID and flu can spread easily during indoor gatherings, so staying home when sick can help reduce transmission.”
Meanwhile, pharmaceutical interventions remain limited, as this season’s influenza vaccine is only partially matched to circulating strains. Antiviral medications can lessen severity for high-risk flu and COVID-19 groups.
Mitigation Efforts Still Critical
Public health leaders emphasize basic precautions will be key tools to limit virus impact moving forward. These include staying home when sick, maintaining good hand hygiene, wearing high quality masks in crowded indoor settings, and keeping up to date with vaccinations.
“The news is sobering and a reminder that we need to remain vigilant against respiratory viruses,” said Dr. Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota. “Continuing to follow common sense mitigation guidance, along with understanding treatment and testing options, will be crucial in the weeks and months ahead.”
While another holiday spike has clearly begun, individual actions represent an ongoing opportunity to flatten the curve and support community health during a difficult virus season.
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