Health

Is It Flu, RSV or COVID? Experts Fear the ‘Tripledemic’

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Oct. 25, 2022 – Just when we thought this holiday season, finally, would be the back-to-normal one, some infectious disease experts are warning that a so-called tripledemic – influenza, COVID-19, and RSV – may be in the forecast.

The warning isn’t without basis. 

  • The flu season has gotten an early start. As of Oct. 21, early increases in seasonal flu activity have been reported in most of the country, the CDC says, with the southeast and south-central areas having the highest activity levels. 
  • Children’s hospitals and emergency departments are seeing a surge in children with RSV.
  • COVID-19 cases are trending down, according to the CDC, but epidemiologists – scientists who study disease outbreaks – always have their eyes on emerging variants. 

Predicting exactly when cases will peak is difficult, says Justin Lessler, PhD, a professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Lessler is on the coordinating team for the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub, which aims to predict the course COVID-19, and the Flu Scenario Modeling Hub, which does the same for influenza.

For COVID-19, some models are predicting some spikes before Christmas, he says, and others see a new wave in 2023. For the flu, the model is predicting an earlier-than-usual start, as the CDC has reported.  

While flu activity is relatively low, the CDC says, the season is off to an early start. For the week ending Oct. 21, 1,674 patients were hospitalized for flu, higher than in the summer months but fewer than the 2,675 hospitalizations for the week of May 15, 2022. 

As of Oct. 20, COVID-19 cases have declined 12% over the last 2 weeks, nationwide. But hospitalizations are up 10% in much of the Northeast, The New York Times reports, and the improvement in cases and deaths has been slowing down. 

As of Oct. 15, 15% of RSV tests reported nationwide were positive, compared with about 11% at that time in 2021, the CDC says. The surveillance collects information from 75 counties in 12 states. 

Experts point out that the viruses — all three are respiratory viruses —  are simply playing catchup. 

“They spread the same way and along with lots of other viruses, and you tend to see an increase in them during the cold months,” says Timothy Brewer, MD, professor of medicine and epidemiology at UCLA.

The increase in all three viruses “is almost predictable at this point in the pandemic,” says Dean Blumberg, MD, a professor and chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of California Davis Health. “All the respiratory viruses are out of whack.” 

Last year, RSV cases were up, too, and began to appear very early, he says, in the summer instead of in the cooler months. Flu also appeared early in 2021, as it has this year. 

That contrasts with the flu season of 2020-2021, when COVID precautions were nearly universal, and cases were down. At UC Davis, “we didn’t have one pediatric admission due to influenza in the 2020-2021 [flu] season,” Blumberg says. 

The number of pediatric flu deaths usually range from 37 to 199 per year, according to CDC records. But in the 2020-2021 season, the CDC recorded one pediatric flu death in the U.S.

Both children and adults have had less contact with others the past 2 seasons, Blumberg says, “and they don’t get the immunity they got with those infections [previously]. That’s why we are seeing out-of-season, early season [viruses].” 

Eventually, he says, the cases of flu and RSV will return to previous levels. “It could be as soon as next year,” Blumberg says. And COVID-19, hopefully, will become like influenza, he says.

“RSV has always come around in the fall and winter,” says Elizabeth Murray, DO, a pediatric emergency medicine doctor at the University of Rochester Medical Center and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. This year, children are back in school and for the most part not masking, she says. “It’s a perfect storm for all the germs to spread now. They’ve just been waiting for their opportunity to come back.” 

Self-Care vs. Not

RSV can pose a risk for anyone, but most at risk are children under age 5, especially infants under age 1, and adults over age 65.  There is no vaccine for it. Symptoms include a runny nose, decreased appetite, coughing, sneezing, fever, and wheezing. But in young infants, there may only be decreased activity, crankiness, and breathing issues, the CDC says.

Keep an eye on the breathing if RSV is suspected, Murray tells parents. If your child can’t breathe easily, is unable to lie down comfortably, can’t speak clearly, or is sucking in the chest muscles to breathe, get medical help. Most kids with RSV can stay home and recover, she says, but often will need to be checked by a medical professional.

She advises against getting an oximeter to measure oxygen levels for home use. “They are often not accurate,” she says. If in doubt about how serious your child’s symptoms are, “don’t wait it out,” she says, and don’t hesitate to call 911.

Symptoms of flu, COVID, and RSV can overlap.  But each can involve breathing problems, which can be an emergency. 

“It’s important to seek medical attention for any concerning symptoms, but especially severe shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, as these could signal the need for supplemental oxygen or other emergency interventions,” says Mandy De Vries, a respiratory therapist and director of education at the American Association for Respiratory Care. Inhalation treatment or mechanical ventilation may be needed for severe respiratory issues.

Precautions

To avoid the tripledemic – or any single infection – Timothy Brewer, MD, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at UCLA, suggests some familiar measures: “Stay home if you’re feeling sick. Make sure you are up to date on your vaccinations. Wear a mask indoors.”

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