A day after news of COVID-19 hospitalizations more than doubled in Pierce County in a week, local and regional health officials have stepped up calls for indoor masking amid ever-increasing numbers of cases of respiratory diseases.
COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus are increasing in Pierce County as well as the region. A joint statement released Friday by representatives from hospitals and health departments across the state recommended universal masking amid the current outbreak.
“As health workers and health care leaders working to improve the health of Washington residents, we recommend that everyone wear a high-quality, well-fitting mask when around other people in spaces. interiors to protect against acquiring and spreading these infections to others,” the statement read.
Face masks are no longer mandated by the state in most settings outside of health care and have become rare in social settings as more people gather for the holiday season, family gatherings and other social events.
In their statement, health officials also insisted on getting a flu shot and receiving the updated COVID bivalent booster.
“In addition to RSV and influenza, new variants of COVID-19 are taking hold and immunity to previous vaccinations is waning for many people who have not yet received an updated booster. The resurgence of these virus leads to many diseases,” they added.
National flu-related hospitalizations are higher this year than in any previous season since 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The very young and those 65 and older have the current rate. highest hospitalization rates for influenza-like illnesses. nationwide, according to the data.
Dr. Karthikeyan Muthuswamy is Associate Medical Director of the Emergency Department at St. Clare’s Hospital in Lakewood, and Chief of Staff and Chair of Medical Staff at Virginia Mason Franciscan Health.
Muthuswamy told the News Tribune on Friday that with so many illnesses in the community, it “is very difficult to distinguish between influenza, COVID and RSV. When you come to my emergency room, they all look the same. And for the most part, their results at this point are the same.
“We see a ton of people coming in” with flu-like illnesses. he added.
Statewide, from winter 2019 to 2020, he said the peak in ER visits across Washington for patients with flu-like illness was 8%.
“This time this year the peak was 15%,” he said. “So literally double the percentage of patients,” with influenza-like illness (ILI).
“It’s kind of worse now than it ever was in the past,” he added.
The state trend reflects what is happening locally, he noted.
“In Pierce County, there are about 12-14 percent visits for ILI this flu season, where two years ago it was about 5 percent, that was the peak.”
Muthuswamy doesn’t think the relaxed mask standard is the only reason for the now overwhelmed medical facilities.
“Americans didn’t really wear masks before COVID existed and our flu seasons were bad, but never this bad in recent history,” he said.
He recommends wearing masks now, “just because there are so many people getting sick and we know masks work.”
“We know that because the flu was gone for two years, like when we were in the middle of the COVID pandemic, the flu didn’t exist,” he said. “I saw maybe one case of the flu, the whole flu season in a year. It’s ridiculous. Now I see about six flu cases per shift.
He thinks the causes of the current respiratory surge are more complex, to be finally determined in a few years after research and examination of the data.
“The working idea is because we were so good at containing SGs when we were going through COVID, a lot of us weren’t exposed to the flu. More importantly, the children were not exposed to the flu at school. So now everyone is back to school. Everyone mixes again. And our bodies haven’t seen the flu in a while. So we are more likely to get sick,” he said.
“It’s almost like we’re seeing COVID for the first time. … Same thing with the flu. Our bodies haven’t really seen it in two years. So everyone gets sick.
Muthuswamy added: “That’s the working theory. We won’t be able to prove it for a few years.
He said the same applies to RSV.
“Now not all of these children have been exposed to RSV. Unfortunately, we do not yet have a vaccine against RSV. So RSV rears its ugly head again. And RSV is a very dangerous disease. No doubt, for children under 2, it is more dangerous than COVID,” Muthuswamy said.
Pediatric medical centers such as MultiCare’s Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma have been at the heart of the fight against RSV and other respiratory infections. U.S. Representative Kim Schrier, who is also a pediatrician, visited the hospital on Friday, drawing attention to the impact of RSV and her efforts to seek federal emergency action to help with the RSV outbreak.
In a letter she sent to President Joe Biden and Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Beccera in November, she wrote, “The combination of a Presidential Emergency Declaration…and a Declaration of public health emergency of the secretariat would better solve the problems of pediatric capacity of this RSV increase and allow better care of patients.
Muthuswamy told the News Tribune his best estimate is that the current outbreak of flu-like illnesses will last for some time, based on past disease patterns.
“My prediction is that it’s going to be bad until January. My concern is if it drops fast enough…it almost always results in a second peak in February. If it falls a bit and stays flat. It’s going to stay flat for the rest of the season and then drop…depending on the history of what we’ve seen with the ILIs.
Dr. John Lynch, infectious disease specialist and medical director of infection prevention and control at Harborview Medical Center, said in a statement Thursday that flu cases would not normally begin to rise until late December, but the wave of this season appeared in late November.
All of this makes it essential for people to take extra health precautions now, he added.
“It’s multiple layers: getting vaccinated, getting boosted, staying home when you feel sick, getting tested for COVID, and connecting to care, if that’s helpful to you,” Lynch said. “Stay home when you are sick and stay away from others.”
For more information
▪ VMFH guide to determining levels of care: vmfh.org/our-services/urgent-walk-in-care/choosing-the-right-level-of-care
▪ MultiCare guide to where to seek care: multicare.org/patient-resources/where-to-seek-care/
This story was originally published December 10, 2022 7:05 a.m.
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