Flu hospitalizations hit their highest level in a decade amid an early viral outbreak

The United States is experiencing the highest flu hospitalization rates in a decade for this time of year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Friday, with people aged 65 and older the hardest hit. , followed by young children.

The increase comes as other respiratory viruses, including respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, are also spreading early and rapidly.

Common winter viruses tend to peak in December and January — not October and November — although it’s unclear how the early and intense spread of respiratory viruses will ultimately play out this season.

“At the moment, we don’t see anything that would lead us to believe it’s more serious,” Lynnette Brammer, team leader of the CDC’s National Influenza Surveillance Team, said of the flu during from a press briefing on Friday. “It’s just early right now.”

Yet Dawn O’Connell, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at the Department of Health and Human Services, warned that the United States will undoubtedly “face challenges this winter.”

This is the first time since the start of the Covid pandemic that commonplace respiratory viruses are circulating widely again. The masks are removed. The children are back in school. People are coming together like they did before the pandemic.

While lockdowns and masking were important in slowing the spread of Covid earlier in the pandemic, they had a secondary impact: they also slowed the spread of other respiratory illnesses like influenza and RSV. As a result, young children did not encounter these viruses, leaving them with little or no immunity.

“We suspect that many children are being exposed to certain respiratory viruses for the first time, having avoided those viruses during the height of the pandemic,” said Dr. José Romero, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. . Friday briefing.

Nationally, 76% of pediatric hospital beds are occupied, according to an NBC News analysis of HHS data. Twenty states have a capacity of 80% or more.

The CDC has reported extremely high levels of flu-like illnesses in the Southeast, particularly in Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee.

13 other states – Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Mississippi, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia – have also reported significant levels of spread.

The report only covers “flu-like” illnesses – with symptoms such as a fever of at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit, cough and/or sore throat with any other known cause – because clinicians are not not required to report every positive flu test to public health officials.

Other respiratory viruses, including rhinoviruses and enteroviruses, also circulate widely and may cause some of these illnesses.

Influenza-like illnesses are increasing in the Southeast, especially in Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Influenza-like illnesses are increasing in the Southeast, especially in Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee.CDC

The CDC has estimated that, overall, there have been 1.6 million cases of the flu so far this season. Of these, 730 people died.

That includes four children, according to state health departments: two in Texas, one in North Carolina and another in South Carolina.

RSV, another respiratory virus, is also seeing an unusual increase earlier this year.

“We’re seeing more cases of RSV than we’ve ever seen,” said Dr. Rachel Orscheln, pediatric infectious disease specialist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital in Missouri.

RSV is a common virus that usually affects babies during their first year or two of life. Although the vast majority of young children only develop a minor cold, they are the ones most at risk of experiencing the worst outcomes. Babies who get sick enough to be admitted to hospital often need help breathing. In some cases, they require mechanical ventilation.

Two children are reported to have died of RSV this season: a 6-year-old boy in Michigan and a baby in Virginia.

RSV typically hits southeastern states hardest first, Romero said. That’s what has happened so far this season, with the initial spike in the Southeast. RSV has eased somewhat in these areas and is now spreading elsewhere in the country.

“We’re likely going to start seeing cases increase on the West Coast in the coming weeks,” said Dr. Meredith McMorrow, pediatrician and team leader for Enhanced Surveillance Platforms at CDC.

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