The damage that seasonal flu causes can be difficult to forecast. But doctors, hospitals, and public health experts already are seeing the illness hit “hard and early,” especially in the Washington, D.C., area.
The indicators are shaping up that this will be the most severe flu year in the last 13. This is exponentially concerning, as hospitals also struggle with spiking pediatric cases of various respiratory illnesses, especially respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, the Washington Post reported and other news organizations have reported.
Chilly weather is starting to grip much of the country, forcing people indoors, and the coronavirus pandemic persists.
The country may be rumbling toward what some have dubbed a “tripledemic,” the possibility of a destructive collision of common seasonal illnesses like the flu and RSV with the coronavirus and its relentless, vaccine-evading mutations, especially those tied to the Omicron variant line.
This is what the Washington Post reported about the flu’s 2022 assault:
“Influenza is hitting the United States unusually early and hard, already hospitalizing a record number of people at this point in the season in more than a decade and underscoring the potential for a perilous winter of respiratory viruses, according to federal health data …While flu season is usually between October and May, peaking in December and January, it’s arrived about six weeks earlier this year with uncharacteristically high illness. There have already been at least 880,000 cases of influenza illness, 6,900 hospitalizations and 360 flu-related deaths nationally, including one child, according to estimates released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Not since the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic has there been such a high burden of flu, a metric the CDC uses to estimate a season’s severity based on laboratory-confirmed cases, doctor visits, hospitalizations, and deaths … Activity is high in the U.S. south and southeast and is starting to move up the Atlantic coast.”
William Schaffner, medical director for the nonprofit National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and a professor of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told the newspaper this:
“The data are ominous. Not only is flu early, it also looks very severe. This is not just a preview of coming attractions. We’re already starting to see this movie. I would call it a scary movie.”
Pediatricians, already flooded with kids with respiratory illnesses serious enough to require institutional care, especially in children’s hospitals, are reporting 300% increases in month-over-month RSV cases.
Steps to stay healthy
How can we fight back against a potential tripledemic?
A crucial way for grownups to better protect kids, of course, is to get them vaccinated, doctors say. Shots are a safe and effective way to safeguard youngsters and all the rest of us from the coronavirus and the flu, with federal regulators recently having approved for pediatric uses a new booster targeted at the Omicron variants circulating widely.
The vaccines, to be sure, are not foolproof. But they have shown marked success in preventing those who get them from infectious diseases’ most dire outcomes, including costly hospitalizations and death. Public health officials, though, have campaigned this fall with limited results in getting regular folks to get protective vaccinations to avert a potential, problematic surge in cases of the coronavirus, flu, and other infections, including the common cold.
Sure, skeptics (cynics, actually) will game-out scenarios that pooh-pooh vaccines, especially by pretending to deploy purported higher math and statistics to argue, nah, the shots don’t do all that much, so why get ‘em? Well, they are widely available, covered by insurance or federal programs, and they have proven safe in use with billions of people around the globe.
The boobs who say, for example, that the vaccines have less than a 50% efficacy, well, follow-up question, please: Why do you buy lotto tickets with vanishingly low odds while snubbing a safeguard with astonishingly higher chances of success? It also should be underscored: Vaccines, particularly those for the coronavirus, have demonstrated that they prevent patients from the infection’s worst outcomes — hospitalization and death.
In my practice, I not only see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the clear benefits they can reap by staying healthy and far away from the U.S. health care system. It is, according to research conducted in pre-coronavirus pandemic times, fraught with medical error, preventable hospital acquired illnesses and deaths, and misdiagnoses.
If you have been fortunate enough to avoid grim experiences with the coronavirus, why take risks with the flu, RSV, or even the common cold at a time, again, when medical services will be stressed and health workers, already exhausted, will be under great strain?
Talk to your doctors and pediatricians. Get yourself and those you love, especially the kids, vaccinated against preventable, contagious diseases. If you or those you know and love get sick, please stay home. Encourage all you know to practice the basic hygienic measures that folks so recently obsessed about, including hand washing and covering the mouth and nose when sneezing and coughing. If you or your loved ones have underlying, existing health conditions, don’t hesitate to keep wearing face masks; they’re rarer these days but they haven’t disappeared and may be more prevalent as temperatures fall.
RSV is a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported. But the disease annually also is blamed for 2.1 million outpatient (non-hospitalization) visits among children younger than 5 years old, 58,000 hospitalizations among children younger than 5 years old, 177,000 hospitalizations among adults 65 years and older, 14,000 deaths among adults 65 years and older, and 100–300 deaths in children younger than 5 years old.
As for the flu, federal officials say, it kills more than 50,000 people on average each year. The flu and its related lung and heart complications hospitalizes on average 200,000 patients annually, studies indicate.
Just a reminder: The coronavirus has killed 1.1 million Americans and infected 97 million of us. Those figures likely are underestimates. The disease’s pernicious effects persist, too, hospitalizing 27,000 patients daily on average and killing more than 350 people daily on average. Long covid, still poorly understood and problematic to treat, is another pernicious challenge of the pandemic, with at least one large study finding the disease leaves 1 in 4 patients infected not fully recovered after months and 1 in 20 saying they are not recovering at all.
In 1918, medical historians tell us, one of the world’s deadliest influenza pandemics savaged people globally and left a planet also reeling from the first “great” war with lethal, exhausting illness. The science was not as good then, though many of the public health responses taken in the 21st century (face covering, hygiene, and distancing) helped then, as they do now. Still, regular folks got tired of cautions. And they suffered consequences — four waves of killing sickness, which included, the Washington Post reported, this:
“[I]f the fourth [pandemic] wave failed to generate the kinds of headlines and fear of its predecessors, it wasn’t for a lack of lethality. In New York City, more people died in the period from December 1919 to April 1920 than in the first and third waves, according to a research paper on influenza mortality in the city. Detroit, St. Louis, and Minneapolis also experienced significant fourth waves, and severe ‘excess mortality’ was reported in many counties in Michigan because of the flu.”
We have much work to do to ensure our individual and collective health, especially by taking all the savvy steps we can to finally quell the pandemic and to ensure that other fast-spreading and more common contagions do not inflict excessive harms.