After two years of being overworked and understaffed, nurses may find themselves once again overwhelmed as hospitals prepare to be swamped with patients. It’s the flu season and we’ve only just found ourselves out of the grasp of the COVID pandemic. Now, according to officials, we are hurtling towards a tripledemic. What is this new health crisis, and what are the experts saying we should do to protect ourselves?
While there is no scientifically authoritative definition for “tripledemic,” the term is being used to describe a combination of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), the flu, and COVID-19 on such a grand scale that it could strain emergency rooms. “What we are seeing is record levels of RSV in young children,” explained Scott Roberts, MD, a Yale Medicine infectious disease specialist. “Usually, we see a spike in December or January, but it’s earlier this year. COVID is still the most prevalent virus in the community, but it’s on a downward trajectory, while RSV and flu are increasing.”
All three of the tripledemic viruses are present now, but they are not all peaking at the same time, according to YaleMedicine.org. Dr. Roberts told the outlet that the big question is whether RSV and COVID will decline, but that there’s “no doubt, however, that flu cases will increase.” The doctor explained that a “big part” of more flu cases and the tripledemic is “our lack of immunity from having not been exposed to the flu for several seasons due to masking and other precautions.”
In Colorado, for example, Associate Chief Medical Officer with Children’s Hospital Colorado, Kevin Carney, told Axios Denver, “All of our ERs are basically seeing volumes 30, 40 to sometimes even 50% above even the highest numbers that we’ve seen in previous seasons.” The state’s Department of Public Health and Environment data shows that “nearly 90% of all intensive care beds in Colorado hospitals statewide are filled.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that the flu levels nationwide haven’t been this high this early in the year since the swine flu pandemic in 2009.
“In Australia, influenza rates were greater than anytime seen in the last 10 years,” reported UC Davis Health. “They were three times greater than normal. This is usually predictive of what we’re going to see in the U.S. We’re worried that it will be a bad influenza year and a bad RSV year, on top of COVID.”
How Likely is the Triple Threat?
Is the tripledemic a perfect storm just waiting to happen? Some would argue it is, and that we all need to mask up, get vaccinated, scrub our hands raw with hand sanitizer, isolate, and avoid human contact as much as possible. However, there are others who suggest it isn’t as likely as mainstream media is threatening. “Flu and other respiratory viruses and SARS-CoV-2 just don’t get along very well together,” Richard Webby, a virologist and influenza researcher at Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital explained. “It’s unlikely that they will circulate widely at the same time.” Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong School of Public Health seems to agree, saying, “One virus tends to bully the others.”
According to Science.org, “Rhinoviruses, which cause common colds, can trip up influenza A (the most prevalent flu virus). RSV can bump rhinoviruses and human metapneumoviruses. Influenza A can thwart its distant cousin influenza B.”
However, “interference,” as it is called, isn’t definite, especially when there are numerous viruses floating around. A survey of 2,117 people in Nicaragua found that flu and COVID cases peaked at the same time back in February, which researchers said suggested “limited viral interference.” Aubree Gordon, a researcher who led the study at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor with colleagues from Nicaragua’s Ministry of Health, said, “I think of interference as a small push. It depends on population immunity and when that virus last circulated and flu and COVID vaccination rates.”
So, what do we know? Once again, we are left to cipher through a convoluted mess of vastly differing opinions from medical professionals. To some, the tripledemic threat is all but assured and we need to go back to wearing masks and isolating. To others, the perfect storm is not as likely, and the fact that we have so many cases of the flu is largely a result of lowered immune systems from two years of hiding from the world and not getting the necessary exposure to viruses and bacteria.
However, it is the flu season, so stock up on tissues, chicken soup, and have that warm, fluffy blanket on standby.
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