WEYMOUTH — South Shore Health officials say the system is grappling with ongoing staffing shortages and a full emergency room as people battle a trifecta of respiratory illnesses — COVID-19, RSV and the flu.
“We’re in a phase where we have the highest volume of respiratory disease in decades, basically,” said Dr. Todd Ellerin, director of infectious diseases at South Shore Health. “We’ve only been dealing with COVID for three years, and now we have unprecedented levels of RSV and unprecedented levels of influenza for this start of the season. It’s not like we haven’t seen this in January, but in November and early December is very early.”
All but seven states reported high or very high respiratory viral activity this week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Massachusetts is ranked in the “very high” category, with about 6% of doctor visits and 3% of flu-related hospitalizations.
Rochelle Walensky, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said last week that flu-related hospitalizations this time of year are higher than the country has seen in a decade.
At South Shore Health’s Health Express Urgent Care Centers, Ellerin said about 32% of patients who were tested for the flu last week came back positive, compared to 7% for COVID-19.
“So one in three people testing for the flu had it. Millions of people have the flu around us,” he said. “This underscores the importance of getting the flu shot, which will reduce the likelihood of needing hospital treatment.”
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There are vaccines for COVID and the flu, but not for RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, which is particularly dangerous for infants. All three viruses have very similar symptoms, such as fever, cough, and upper respiratory symptoms. About 38% of Massachusetts residents have received a flu shot this season, according to the state.
Ellerin said RSV now appears to be in decline, but was severe at the start of the season.
“Our pediatric units have never seen such severity leading to hospitalization as we have seen this year,” he said.
While flu cases are on the rise, Ellerin said COVID-19 cases are stable, with about 20 patients in hospital with the virus. He said deaths from the virus are now rare in hospital, partly due to advances in treatment.
Ellerin said fewer people were wearing masks than in the previous two winters and the population’s immunity to respiratory infections, such as the flu, was reduced. This brings more people to doctor’s offices, urgent care centers and emergency rooms for treatment.
“Generally, day to day, we haven’t seen those volumes. When you look at this year versus last year, it’s significantly higher,” he said. “It’s the respiratory illnesses, the care delays due to the pandemic. All of these things are contributing to acute care visits.”
A sharp rise in the number of sick patients is exasperated by a continuing staff shortage felt by health systems across the country. According to the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association, there are currently approximately 19,000 vacancies in acute care hospitals in Massachusetts.
“Throughout the country, there are major staffing issues and health systems are over capacity, with staff working tirelessly around the clock to care for patients,” he said.
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Although there is “a lot of virus around”, Ellerin said the increase in respiratory illnesses has not caused a huge increase in hospital admissions. He said it was “nothing” like when the hospital was pushed to capacity with dozens of extremely sick COVID-19 patients.
Ellerin stressed that it was important to reserve the emergency department for severe cases, such as people with respiratory illnesses who cannot speak full sentences. He said the first step should be a call to primary care or the pediatrician’s office, or visiting an urgent care department.
“If you need an emergency, we’re here, and despite the capacity issues, we’re doing an incredible job of treating emerging diseases, but a lot of patients are coming in, going home and they didn’t need be there,” he said. .
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