The U.S. is seeing the highest flu hospitalization rates in a decade for this time of year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday, with people 65 and older hit hardest, followed by young children.
The increase is because 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 progress this season.
“Right now, we’re not seeing anything that would lead us to believe it’s more serious,” Lynnette Brammer, team leader of the CDC’s domestic flu surveillance team, said of the flu at a media briefing Friday. “It’s just early now.”
Still, Dawn O’Connell, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response of the Department of Health and Human Services, warned that the US will undoubtedly “face some challenges” this winter.
It is the first time since the start of the Covid pandemic that everyday respiratory viruses are circulating again on a large scale. Masks are off. Kids are back at school. People are coming together like before the pandemic.
While lockdowns and masks 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, such as the flu and RSV. Young children did not encounter these viruses, so they had little to no immunity.
“We suspect that many children are now being exposed to some respiratory viruses for the first time because they avoided these viruses during the height of the pandemic,” said Dr. José Romero, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, during Friday’s briefing.
Nationally, 76% of children’s hospital beds are occupied, according to an analysis by NBC News of HHS data. Twenty states have a capacity of 80% or more.
The CDC reported extremely high levels of flu-like illness in the Southeast, particularly Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Another 13 states — Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Mississippi, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia — also reported significant levels of distribution.
The report only looks at “influenza-like” illnesses — with symptoms such as a fever of at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit, cough and/or sore throat of any other known cause — as clinicians are not required to report every positive flu test to public health officials.
Other respiratory viruses, including rhinoviruses and enteroviruses, are also widely circulating and may explain some of those diseases.
The CDC estimates there have been a total of 1.6 million cases of flu this season so far. Among them, 730 people died.
That includes four children, according to state health departments: two in TexasOne in North Carolina and another in south carolina.
RSV, another respiratory virus, is also peaking unusually early this year.
“We’re seeing more cases of RSV than we’ve ever seen,” said Dr. Rachel Orscheln, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital in Missouri.
RSV is a very common virus and usually affects babies in their first or second year of life. While the vast majority of young children will get only a mild cold, they are most at risk for the worst outcomes. Babies who get sick enough to be hospitalized often need help breathing. In some cases, they require mechanical ventilation.
Reportedly, two children have died of RSV this season: a 6-year-old boy Michigan and a baby in Virginia.
RSV usually affects southeastern states first, Romero said. That’s what has happened so far this season, with the first spike in the Southeast. RSV has calmed down in those areas and is now spreading elsewhere in the country.
“We will likely see cases increase on the West Coast in the coming weeks,” said Dr. Meredith McMorrow, a pediatrician and team leader for Enhanced Surveillance Platforms at the CDC.