Flu, RSV, And COVID-19 Cases Climbing As Families Prepare To Gather
As Ohioans prepare for holiday gatherings and travel, public health officials are warning about a notable uptick in seasonal respiratory illnesses that could threaten vulnerable populations. Cases of influenza (flu), respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and COVID-19 have all been rising in recent weeks, putting added strain on healthcare systems already operating at capacity.
“We are seeing concerning trends when it comes to influenza and RSV,” said Ohio Department of Health Director Bruce Vanderhoff at a press conference last week. “Hospitalizations for flu are the highest at this point in the season since we began tracking them this way in 2018-2019.”
The latest data from the Ohio Department of Health shows that flu hospitalizations jumped 50% in the first week of December to 156. RSV hospitalizations are also elevated, with cases rising later than normal this year.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 has seen an uptick for nine straight weeks in Ohio, though deaths and hospitalizations remain relatively low. The rise in cases comes as the Omicron subvariants BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 spread rapidly nationwide.
With holiday travel and indoor gatherings providing prime conditions for viruses to jump from person to person, officials are advising Ohio residents to get vaccinated and take precautions. But vaccine uptake for the new Omicron-targeted COVID-19 booster has been low so far.
COVID-19 Booster Rates Lag As New Variants Spread
While public health leaders tout vaccines as the best line of defense against a “tripledemic” wave of respiratory viruses, most Ohioans have yet to get the updated COVID-19 booster targeting Omicron subvariants.
According to the Ohio Department of Health, less than 10% of Ohioans have received the new bivalent booster overall, and rates are even lower among vulnerable groups. That’s despite rising COVID cases and eligibility for the new shots opening up months ago.
|Percent with New Booster
“We have a tool that could really help lessen the impact of what we are predicting,” said Vanderhoff, “but unfortunately too few Ohioans are choosing to take advantage of it.”
With overall vaccine hesitancy a roadblock, officials are urging those who are willing to get all recommended doses. And they want to spread the message that the updated formulas specifically target genetically-distinct Omicron offshoots that weren’t covered well in previous vaccines.
“Immunity wanes over time so boosters are important for maintaining protection against infection, but also against severe disease and death,” said Vanderhoff.
Hospitals are also preparing for a strain on capacity and staffing if cases keep rising through the holidays. Some are bracing for bed usage to return to crisis levels of earlier pandemic waves.
Hospitals On Alert For Post-Holiday Surge Of Sick Patients
With travel and indoor gatherings providing prime conditions for respiratory virus spread, hospitals are gearing up for a potential influx of flu, RSV, and COVID-19 patients in the weeks following Christmas and New Year’s celebrations.
Some are warning that extreme capacity issues could return, recalling last season’s severe RSV resurgence that overwhelmed pediatric units. Others caution that staffing shortfalls may worsen if doctors and nurses fall ill themselves during viral peaks.
“Hospitalizations for flu have risen sharply and are far higher at this point than in recent years,” said Vanderhoff. “Our hospital systems also continue managing COVID-19 cases and significant challenges with workforce shortages.”
Experts worry people have become too complacent towards COVID-19 risks after nearly three years of pandemic life. Though treatments have improved and vaccines provide strong protection against severe outcomes, infections can still swamp healthcare resources without proper precautions.
“People are exhausted from being vigilant but viruses don’t get exhausted,” Summit County Health Commissioner Donna Skoda told the Akron Beacon Journal. “As a community, we have to care more about people who can’t build up immunity.”
Doctors recommend getting both flu and COVID-19 shots, including boosters, ahead of winter holidays. Maintaining healthy habits like hand washing, mask wearing, and staying home when sick can also limit virus transmission risk.
Officials say it’s particularly important for young children, older adults, those with chronic conditions, and people with weakened immune systems to take advantage of vaccines and access treatment quickly if infected.
What Comes Next? Risks High But Future Unclear
Though concerning trends are emerging when it comes to seasonal respiratory viruses, experts say it remains difficult to predict case trajectories as the calendar turns to 2023. The holiday travel season always brings an element of uncertainty.
“It’s alarming but maybe not unexpected,” said Dr. Roberto Colon of Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton about the rise in hospitalizations so far. “The hope is we don’t continue to see this escalation.”
Some key things health officials will monitor closely in coming weeks:
Holiday Gathering Impacts: Family get-togethers and crowded travel hubs could fuel wider community spread. But behavior changes like masking, testing, and staying home while sick can limit virus transmission.
Flu Activity Ramping Up: Flu season is just getting started and typically peaks between December and February. Cases could explode rapidly, especially if people don’t get vaccinated.
New COVID-19 Variants: The latest Omicron sublineages have shown a knack for evading immunity. If they continue mutating significantly or a new variant arrives, another wave could begin.
For now, Vanderhoff says Ohioans should remain vigilant about respiratory viruses as they finalize holiday plans. But he also understands preventing all cases is unrealistic at this stage.
“The bottom line is that these viruses are going to spread to some degree,” Vanderhoff said. “But we also know we have some power to influence what happens next if we use the tools we have.”
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