Doctors are warning of a possible “triple dementia” as cases of influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) rise alongside the ongoing COVID pandemic.
Hospitals across the state are seeing more patients and longer wait times — some as long as 9 or 10 hours — mostly due to RSV and flu cases.
Children’s Hospital of Alabama has announced that it is at full capacity. According to data from the Department of Health and Human Services, an estimated 75% of children’s hospital beds are full across the country.
“We’re seeing a pretty steep rise in these viruses early in the season, which gives everybody a little bit of pause that this could be kind of a long winter with a lot of disease,” said Dr. Claudette Poole. associate program director of pediatric infectious diseases with UAB and Children’s of Alabama at today’s news conference.
Doctors at the University of Alabama at Birmingham say the wave of RSV and flu is occurring earlier than usual and that they are seeing a higher number of cases than in years past. A possible reason, they note, could be a “pandemic gap in immunity.”
“If you haven’t been outside in the last few years, you’ve been masking up, you’ve been at home … you haven’t been exposed to all the viruses that usually circulate in the winter,” said Dr. Jeanne. Marrazzo, director of the UAB Division of Infectious Diseases.
“So there’s a theory that maybe we as a society, as a community, are more vulnerable right now to the usual winter respiratory viruses that we’re seeing.” And that may be even more important for younger people, especially children.”
Several school districts switched to remote learning for one or two days at a time this week due to high flu-related absences.
According to the Alabama Department of Public Health, “influenza-like illnesses are on the rise in most parts of the state.” The agency said 15 flu or flu-like outbreaks were reported in the week of Oct. 10, a rate significantly higher than during this time compared to the past two flu seasons.
While hospitalizations for COVID-19 are declining, new variants are emerging that do not respond as well to immune protection.
Marrazo urges Alabamians to still get vaccinated against COVID and to get boosted to help prevent serious illness.
“Vaccination with the current booster that we have now that is targeted [Omicron subvariants] likely to help mitigate or help prevent the most severe consequences of COVID, regardless of what lines they come from,” Marrazo said.
“I know I said it might not work as well, but we think it will still have some effect on serious disease. And at the end of the day, that’s what really matters to us.”
RSV, which causes mild cold symptoms but can be serious for young children and the elderly, has no vaccine. The virus also doesn’t develop permanent immunity for those who get it, so it’s possible to get co-infections.
Dr. Poole advises parents to keep their newborns away from crowded areas and to “cocoon” them so that only a few trusted family members hold the baby while viruses circulate.
Schools, which pose a risk for the spread of viruses due to their shared environment, should also ensure that disinfectants and tissues are readily available, and parents should keep their children at home if they show symptoms.
Doctors also encourage flu shots, which can be given from 6 months of age and up. Pregnant women are also advised to get the shot as this will provide some protection to their babies until they are eligible for the shot.
Along with the flu shot, which takes about two weeks to provide full protection, the CDC recommends the following precautions:
- Avoid close contact with sick people. When you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick.
- Stay home when you are sick.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.
- Wash your hands often.
- Do not touch eyes, nose or mouth.
- Follow other good health habits, such as cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces, getting enough sleep, being physically active, drinking plenty of fluids, and eating nutritious food.