A concerning rise in influenza (flu) and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cases across South Carolina has led state health officials to hold briefings this week urging residents to take precautions ahead of New Year’s celebrations. The palmetto state, along with Louisiana, currently leads the nation in flu activity.
Over 110,000 Flu Cases Confirmed So Far This Season
According to data from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), over 110,000 lab-confirmed flu cases have been reported statewide so far this flu season, which began October 1. That number reflects people who sought out testing at clinics and hospitals and is likely an undercount of total cases.
The predominant flu strain causing illness this year is influenza A H3N2, which tends to lead to more severe illness especially among the elderly and very young. Rates of flu-related hospitalizations have also shot up, with 921 admissions reported last week alone compared to 146 at the same time last year.
RSV Hospitalizations Reaching All-Time Highs Among Children
While flu is impacting South Carolinians of all ages, an unexpected summer RSV surge has led to record pediatric hospitalizations from the respiratory virus. Nearly all children become infected with RSV before age 2, but it can be especially dangerous for infants and those with chronic illnesses.
Major children’s hospitals across the state have been operating over capacity for months. Prisma Health Children’s Hospital in Columbia broke its all-time RSV hospitalization record three times last week, while the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital in Charleston was forced to add 72 beds to keep up with demand.
Health Officials Urging Flu Shots, General Precautions
With flu and RSV activity expected to remain elevated in the coming weeks, DHEC physicians are stressing the importance of vaccination and general preventative steps:
- Get an annual flu shot if you have not already
- Wash hands frequently
- Wear masks in crowded indoor settings
- Stay home when feeling unwell
- Be up to date on COVID-19 boosters
They note it is not too late to get protection from this year’s flu strains. Both flu shots and the new bivalent COVID booster cover currently circulating variants.
State Epidemiologist Dr. Linda Bell said South Carolina managed to avoid a COVID surge after Thanksgiving gatherings but may not be so lucky after the upcoming New Year’s holiday. She advised revelers planning multi-household celebrations to move events outside or have attendees test beforehand if possible.
Still Not Enough RSV Vaccine Supply to Meet Demand
One thing that could provide protection against the unprecedented level of RSV infections is still not available to most South Carolina families – a RSV vaccine.
The first RSV preventative shot was approved in June 2022 but supply remains extremely limited nationwide. It is currently only available for the highest-risk babies and toddlers. Because protection wanes, most children would need to get the 2-dose vaccine annually for the first few years of life when RSV risk is greatest.
Both Pfizer and GSK are scrambling to ramp up production of their newly approved RSV shots. But for this RSV season, widespread pediatric vaccination is sadly not an option according to DHEC. They will continue petitioning the companies and federal government for more vaccine allotments in 2024.
Flu Activity Could Get Worse Before it Gets Better
While South Carolina is already experiencing high flu volumes, health systems are preparing for things to potentially get worse in January or February before this flu wave subsides. Based on patterns from previous H3N2-dominant seasons, flu hospitalizations often peak in February.
Doctors hope residents heed advice on prevention and treatment-seeking to blunt the worst outcomes. Antiviral medication like Tamiflu can reduce flu severity or complications if started early on.
DHEC also plans to closely track whether COVID, RSV, and flu simultaneously circulating could put immunocompromised individuals or those with multiple conditions at greater risk for severe health impacts. For now they are monitoring data and asking South Carolinians to remain vigilant against all three viruses.
|Week ending 12/17
|Week ending 12/24
The above table shows the weekly increases in confirmed flu cases and hospitalizations as reported by DHEC. Case counts nearly doubled while hospitalizations increased 46% week-over-week.
This story relied on information reported directly by South Carolina health officials over the past week. Residents should continue monitoring updates from DHEC as doctors brace for a challenging winter virus season that could intensify further in 2023 before stabilization later next year when more RSV vaccine supply comes online.
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