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May 29, 2024

Respiratory Viruses Surge Over Holidays As Vaccination Rates Remain Low

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Dec 20, 2023

A dangerous mix of COVID-19, influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is leading to a surge in hospitalizations across the United States. As people gather to celebrate the winter holidays, health officials are sounding the alarm about low vaccination rates that leave the population vulnerable.

COVID Hospitalizations Reach 6-Month High

COVID-related hospitalizations have reached their highest level in 6 months, with an average of over 5,200 admissions per day according to the latest CDC data. The majority of cases are caused by newer Omicron subvariants like BQ.1 and XBB, which account for over 70% of cases nationally.

While these new variants appear adept at evading immunity, both from past infection and vaccination, experts say that being up to date with the new bivalent booster still provides protection against severe disease and death. However, CDC data shows less than 15% of eligible Americans have gotten the updated shot.

Week Ending % With Updated Booster
12/3/2022 14.8%
12/10/2022 13.4%

Influenza Positivity Rate Triples

Influenza activity has also exploded in recent weeks, with the percentage of respiratory specimens testing positive for flu more than tripling since late November. The CDC now estimates there have been at least 13 million cases, 120,000 hospitalizations, and 7,300 deaths so far this flu season.

Hospitalization rates for flu are now the highest observed at this point in the season over the past decade, except for during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic and the severe 2017-2018 flu year. Pediatric deaths are also significantly elevated compared to recent seasons.

Flu Season Pediatric Deaths*
2022-2023 30
2021-2022 1
2020-2021 1
2019-2020 195

*As of 12/17/2022

Officials attribute the unusually early and intense flu wave to the lack of exposure over the past few flu seasons when COVID precautions were widespread. This has left the population with waning immunity. Flu vaccination rates are also lagging, with only 49.7% coverage nationally so far compared to 54.7% at the same time last year.

RSV Breaks Seasonal Records

Cases of RSV, which can cause severe respiratory illness especially in infants and young children, are also smashing seasonal records. While RSV test positivity seems to have peaked in late November, activity still remains exceptionally high for this time of year and is expected to continue elevating hospital utilization.

There is currently no RSV vaccine, so prevention relies on good hygiene like hand washing and avoiding exposure to sick individuals. For vulnerable infants, an antibody shot called palivizumab can provide temporary protection.

Warns This Respiratory Virus Season Could Overwhelm Hospitals

The combination of surging COVID, flu, and RSV, dubbed the “tripledemic”, has infectious disease experts worried that hospitals could soon be overwhelmed. So far most health systems are handling the elevated patient volume, but were a new COVID variant to emerge or if the viruses continue intensifying further into winter, experts say rationing of care could become necessary.

There are already signs of strain on pediatric facilities and staff, with long emergency department wait times being reported in many areas. Some children’s hospitals have had to implement surge tents to handle overflow.

The best way to reduce strain on hospitals is to curb transmission in the community. Experts are urging vaccination, good hand hygiene, staying home when sick, and wearing high quality masks in indoor public settings.

However, the window for vaccination to provide optimal protection before holiday gatherings is closing. Full immunity from the updated COVID boosters or flu shot takes about two weeks to develop.

Given current low vaccination uptake rates, infections are likely to continue escalating through December and January. Health officials say being vigilant about symptoms and testing before visiting vulnerable loved ones remains crucial. Therapies like antivirals and monoclonal antibodies can prevent severe outcomes in high risk groups if administered promptly after infection.

The eventual hope is enhanced next-generation vaccines and combination shots will provide more durable protection against this seasonal triple threat moving forward. But for now, prevention and prompt treatment are our best tools this holiday season.

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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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