Covid cases stay down, but other respiratory illnesses are surging, N. Va. health leaders say

Teddy bear with a face mask and stethoscope (via Myriam Zilles on Unsplash)

(Updated at 4:15 p.m.) While the wave of COVID-19 cases seen over the past two winters hasn’t yet materialized this year, increased reports of other respiratory illnesses have local hospitals and health officials bracing for a particularly tough cold season.

Fairfax County and other Northern Virginia public health leaders are urging community members “to maintain their vigilance” and help prevent the spread of influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which are both surging earlier than usual.

“This is especially important because as temperatures cool, we spend more time indoors with others, and may travel to gather with friends and family for celebrations who are at increased risk of severe complications from infection,” the Northern Virginia Regional Commission (NVRC) said in a news release yesterday.

Inova activated its emergency plan to handle a surge in patients last month. The health care provider resumed normal operations on Nov. 8, but said “volumes continue to be high across the health system, particularly in pediatric services.”

HCA Healthcare, which owns Reston Hospital Center and Tysons Emergency, said its facilities in the area have also seen an increase in flu and RSV cases.

“We have been able to manage this increase in volume. We are increasing our staff and streamlining our processes in anticipation of a challenging winter season,” Reston Hospital Center Chief Medical Officer Dr. Carnell Cooper said.

Flu season is here

The Fairfax County Health Department confirmed that both flu and RSV cases have been rising locally.

“There is an increasing trend in visits to emergency departments and urgent care centers for influenza-like illness and laboratory results of confirmatory tests, and we have investigated a higher number of outbreaks than expected for this time of year,” the FCHD told FFXnow.

Virginia is seeing a very high level of activity for influenza-like illnesses (ILL), as of the week that ended Nov. 5, according to the Virginia Department of Health. The rating by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is based on outpatient visits to health care providers for respiratory illness involving a cough or sore throat and fever.

Respiratory illness activity levels by state, as of Nov. 5 (via CDC)

Per VDH, 9% of emergency department and urgent care center visits in the state are ILL-related, with kids 4 and younger making up 21.4% of visits — continuing a trend that health officials fear signals a worse flu season than in recent years, according to the NVRC.

While no deaths have been reported, Virginia has recorded 5,997 infections and 58 outbreaks so far this flu season, which started in mid-October and typically peaks between December and February.

“While it is unclear what exactly is driving this earlier increase in ILI activity from previous years, based on recent flu season reporting from the Southern Hemisphere, we anticipated this early peak to our own flu season,” the FCHD said.

County health officials recommends annual flu vaccinations for everyone 6 months and older. Shots are available from the county by appointment and at pharmacies, doctor’s offices and other locations in the community.

What to know about RSV

In addition to the disproportionate number of flu infections, young kids are getting hit hard by RSV, a common virus that produces usually mild, cold-like symptoms but “can be very dangerous for babies, young children or those who are immunocompromised,” the NVRC says.

“Emergency department and urgent care visits with diagnosed RSV have been increasing rapidly since early September,” the commission said.

According to CDC data, the weekly hospitalization rate for RSV of 3 per 100,000 people was about three times higher as of Nov. 6 than at the same point in 2021. The overall rate for this season is 13 out of every 100,000 people.

Though RSV doesn’t appear to be more transmissible or severe than in the past, limited prior contact with the virus due to social distancing, masking and isolation during the first two years of the Covid pandemic may mean kids have built up less immunity, leading them to get sicker when infected, health experts told The Cut and The New York Times.

While there’s no vaccine for RSV, the NVRC says preventative measures like regular hand-washing with soap and covering coughs and sneezes can reduce the risk of infection.

What about COVID-19?

Covid levels in the community remain low, with the Fairfax Health District averaging 126.4 cases a week, per VDH data.

The district, which includes the cities of Falls Church and Fairfax, has seen a total of 248,068 cases, 5,086 hospitalizations, and 1,683 deaths during the pandemic. 86% of residents have gotten at least one vaccine dose, and 78.3% are considered fully vaccinated, according to the FCHD.

Through the NVRC, regional health officials continue to encourage vaccinations, even with many mass clinics winding down, and offered tips to prevent the spread of all respiratory illnesses:

  • Get all members of your family age 5 years and older fully vaccinated with COVID-19 booster shots, and have everyone age 6 months and older get their flu shot.
  • If you are sick, do not host or attend any holiday gatherings. Stay at home and consider getting tested if you’re having any symptoms of the flu, RSV or COVID-19.
  • Socially distance — stay six feet from others as much as possible. Consider wearing a mask if you cannot keep a safe distance from others, particularly if you are at increased risk of complications from infection.
  • If you are having a gathering, consider hosting it outside, or in well-ventilated areas. If inside, consider limiting the number of people at your gathering to allow proper distancing.
  • Avoid crowded and indoor areas where distancing is not possible, or where you will be in close contact with anyone who is not a member of your household, or whose vaccination and illness status may be unknown.
  • If you think you may have COVID-19 or may have been exposed, get tested and follow guidelines for isolation and quarantine. Testing is also available if you think you may have the flu.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water often or use hand sanitizer if soap and water is not available. This will help prevent many diseases, including the seasonal flu.

Photo via Myriam Zilles on Unsplash

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