Experts are warning of a serious flu season ahead as pediatric hospitals are already feeling the pinch
A surge in pediatric patients with respiratory illnesses is overwhelming hospitals across the United States as experts warn of a potentially tough flu season in the coming months.
Children’s bed capacity in hospitals is the highest it’s been two years. Hospitals nationwide are overwhelmed with pediatric patients with respiratory illnesses, filling up to 71 percent of the estimated 40,000 available hospital beds, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports.
“[Various respiratory] viruses are all in play on top of SARS-CoV-2, and now an increasing amount of influenza has arrived, which we feared would come like a lion this year,” Charlotte Hobbs, Ph.D., professor of pediatric infectious disease and microbiology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC), Children’s of Mississippi, told ABC News.
Dr. Michael Koster, director of pediatric infectious diseases at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, says that from mid-September to mid-October, a number of young patients are admitted to the hospital with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a common respiratory virus. a virus that usually causes cold-like symptoms, doubled.
“We see patients coming from over 100 miles away because their local pediatric hospital is full or closed,” Koster told ABC News, citing the recent closure of several pediatric hospitals in New England.
Lynnette Brammer, an epidemiologist in the CDC’s influenza division, says the national public health agency is monitoring the influx of circulating respiratory viruses.
The CDC reports an early increase in seasonal flu activity in most of the United States, with the Southeast and South-Central regions of the country reporting the highest levels of activity.
Experts say the rise could be driven in part by the easing of COVID restrictions, leaving many vulnerable to illness as a potentially severe flu season approaches.
“We’ve had pretty quiet years as a result of all the efforts to control COVID. That means there’s a resurgence of some of these viruses that we have every year, but in a more significant way,” said John Brownstein, Ph.D. D., an ABC News medical contributor and chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital.
The transition to the winter months also usually leads to an increase in illness.
“As the weather gets drier, people are coming back inside, spending more time inside. And you layer that with the high mobility of the population, especially as the holidays come, it becomes a real, perfect storm for the spread of the flu,” Brownstein said.
Last week alone, 1,674 patients with flu complications were admitted to the hospital, According to the CDC. That was up from 1,332 the previous week, the agency said.
Brownstein notes that we see a lot of variability from year to year, but that this current flu season has been very quick and hasn’t peaked yet.
“Typically we see the flu spike start maybe in November or December. Usually the peak happens in February, but we’re already into October and we’ve already seen an increase in flu activity,” Brammer said.
Health care visits are currently concentrated among younger people, and the highest percentage of visits for flu-like illnesses are for those under 5 at more than 10%, according to CDC data. The next highest percentage are people aged 5 to 24, with 5% of visits.
“For many years you have flu activity, it starts in children and then spreads to other age groups,” Brammer said.
Puerto Rico, Louisiana and Alabama joined New York, Washington, Texas, Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina in reporting high levels of flu-like illnesses last week, according to the CDC. At this time last year, Texas, Georgia and DC were the only states reporting similar levels.
“CDC monitors our surveillance data so we can inform people about flu activity, promoting [the] flu shot and letting people know this is the time of year to go and get your flu shot,” Brammer said.
Brammer emphasizes the importance of antiviral drugs in the fight against influenza. However, “those drugs should really be taken in the first few days of the illness. So you need to go to your doctor quickly,” she adds.
The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months of age and older get the flu shot to help prevent infection and serious illness.
“It’s really simple. We have a safe and effective vaccine. If you haven’t gotten that vaccine yet, it’s time to do it. You really want to get it before Halloween,” Brownstein said.
“Of course, it’s never too late for that. But the sooner, the better,” he adds.
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