Cold and flu season looked very different in recent years as Michigan residents wore masks, physically distanced themselves from others and were acutely aware of symptoms amid a global pandemic.
The result was far fewer reports of respiratory infections, including almost no documented cases of influenza. By limiting the spread of the coronavirus, communities also seem to have a stranglehold on other viruses.
But by December 2022, many of these defense mechanisms are no longer in play and health systems are seeing waves of sick people. Schools have closed because staff members are sick. Even the Detroit Lions are affected; sick players missed training this week.
Doctors saw an upsurge in RSV infections this fall, now followed by a spike in influenza cases, while COVID-19 infections continued apace. Add to that other respiratory infections that cause “cold” symptoms at this time of year, and it begs the question: Is this cold and flu season worse than usual or are we , as a community, simply out of practice to be sick?
“I think part of the reason the numbers are high is that we haven’t had – for three years basically – any exposure to influenza or RSV,” said Dr Matthew Sims, a specialist in infectious diseases for Corewell Health East, formerly known as Beaumont Health. “As we know with these respiratory viruses, you accumulate antibodies. and these antibodies will last for a while. You won’t get full protection after a few months against respiratory viruses, but you will get some protection.
“It’s entirely possible since it’s been years rather than months, everyone’s antibody levels are somehow lower than they would be from just routine exposure and increased of everything you had.”
At Henry Ford Health in Oakland County, Dr. Jennifer Burgess said the rise in disease is likely the result of communities’ declining guard. This means less handwashing and masking, more people meeting indoors, children back to school and traveling without mandatory masks.
“It’s not necessarily that the symptoms are worse, but people have almost forgotten what it was like to be sick because we were doing so much good not being sick,” said Burgess, a family medicine specialist. .
Based on the flu season in the Southern Hemisphere earlier this year, health officials predicted a tougher flu season this year in the United States.
This is starting to become the reality in Michigan.
In the last week of November, Corewell Health East had about 344 flu patients systemwide. By the second week of December, the number had risen to around 760. Sparrow Health said it also saw a larger increase in flu hospitalizations compared to pre-COVID years.
Influenza patients do not seem to be sicker than normal. Around 90% of Corewell East flu patients are sent home. About 10% need additional care, and they tend to have other conditions or risk factors like poor heart health, which puts them at risk for more serious illnesses.
Symptoms of COVID, flu, and other infections can look a lot alike. A common symptom separating the flu from other respiratory illnesses is a fever reaching 102 or 103 degrees. Meanwhile, COVID-19 usually manifests as a dry cough and runny nose in late 2022.
Burgess said she also sees a lot of stomach bugs that cause vomiting and diarrhea in school-aged children and their family members. Although sometimes called the stomach flu, the disease (viral gastroenteritis) is caused by a separate virus.
As the number of sick patients increases, Michigan’s health systems have seen increased emergency room wait times and shortages of various drugs, including antivirals like Tamiflu, which can be used to reduce the duration of the flu. Hospitals aren’t at the stress point they saw at the peaks of the COVID pandemic, but staff are being taxed and turning to strategies like treating extra patients in hallways to maintain adequate care.
It’s the start of flu season, and yet Corewell Health East has already seen about 10 times more flu compared to this time in 2019. Doctors continue to speak of a tri-demic to remind residents of be careful and fall back on heavily used defences. of the COVID pandemic.
“It will never hurt (to hide); it’ll probably give you some extra protection, but it’s not necessarily something you have to do,” Burgess said. “We just have to be more aware and do the things we’ve done in the past. The most important thing is to wash your hands.
In addition to good hygiene, healthcare workers recommend monitoring symptoms and isolating yourself if you feel unwell.
“When it comes to infection prevention practices, we’re not doing as well,” said Dr. Paul Entler, vice president of Sparrow at Lansing. “Protection isn’t about locking yourself in. We have to be out and about, but hand washing is really important, and if you haven’t already, consider getting your flu and COVID shots.”
Vaccines do not completely prevent infection, but reduce the risk of serious illness and may lead to milder symptoms and faster recovery.
To find a vaccine near you, go to vaccines.gov or call the COVID-19 hotline at 888-535-6136 (press 1) between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, or 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekends. .
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