As respiratory viruses strain US health systems, the Biden administration is telling states how ready it is to help

As respiratory viruses strain US health systems, the Biden administration is telling states how ready it is to help


Nearly 20,000 people in the United States were hospitalized with the flu last week, nearly double the number from the previous week, according to data updated Friday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC estimates there have been at least 8.7 million cases, 78,000 hospitalizations and 4,500 deaths from the flu this season.

In a letter to state governors Friday, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra noted that influenza and other respiratory viruses are putting “increasing pressure” on the nation’s health care system.

In a letter obtained exclusively by CNN, Becerra wrote that the Biden administration “stands ready to continue to assist you with resources, supplies and personnel.”

Last month, children’s health leaders asked the federal government to formally declare a state of emergency to support hospitals and communities amid “alarming increases in pediatric respiratory illnesses, including respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and influenza, along with a continuing emergency for children’s mental health.”

The Biden administration has not declared a public health emergency for RSV or influenza, but the Becerra letter outlines ways in which the public health emergency declaration for Covid-19 can be applied to more broadly address the challenges posed by the combination of Covid-19 and other respiratory and seasonal illnesses .

“The administration has used regulatory flexibility to help healthcare providers and suppliers continue to respond to COVID-19. These flexibilities – while critical to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic – can also help address many of the challenges you face during the spread of non-COVID-19 diseases, including RSV and influenza,” the letter said. “They remain available to you and healthcare providers as you all make care available in response to influenza, RSV, COVID-19 and other illnesses.”

For example, if a hospital is experiencing staff shortages exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, it can use an exemption that would allow for increased capacity or easier patient transfers – even if the patients need treatment for something other than Covid-19, such as the flu or RSV.

The letter also highlights available funding, including $400 million from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prepare for and respond to public health threats each year, including influenza and other respiratory diseases such as RSV, along with data, analysis and other planning resources compiled by the federal government. It also noted that the federal government is monitoring the supply chain for critical drugs and devices, and that federal health officials have been working with state governors for the past month through a meeting hosted by the National Governors Association.

“As your federal partner, we stand ready to evaluate every request for federal medical assistance and support — including requests for medical personnel and equipment — working in close coordination with you and local jurisdictions to determine the needs and availability of appropriate resources,” Becerra wrote.

Flu activity is highest in the South, with outbreaks spreading from El Paso to southwest Virginia. All but six states have “high” or “very high” levels of the respiratory virus, and seasonal flu activity remains “high and continues to increase,” according to the CDC.

There have been nearly 17 flu hospitalizations for every 100,000 people this season, rates typically seen in December or January. The cumulative hospitalization rate hasn’t been this high at this point in the season in more than a decade.

The latest surveillance data likely doesn’t reflect the full effects of holiday gatherings, as it only records up to Nov. 26, two days after Thanksgiving.

Although influenza continues to rise, RSV has shown signs of slowing across the country, but positive test rates remain higher than they have been in years and cumulative hospitalization rates are about 10 times higher than typical for this point in the season. In less than two months, this season’s RSV hospitalization rate is already approaching the total RSV hospitalization rate from the entire 2018-19 season.

There is no vaccine against RSV, but health officials have urged people to get flu shots and update their Covid-19 boosters ahead of winter. With the holiday season – and flu season – underway, Dr. Anthony Fauci warned this week of the potential for an emergency.

“When you have very little wiggle room for intensive care beds, when you have almost all of the intensive care beds occupied, that’s bad for kids who have RSV and need intensive care. But it’s also taking up all the beds, and kids who have a number of other illnesses that require intensive care or critical care don’t have a bed for that,” said Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “So if you get into that situation, it’s approaching an emergency.”

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