For nearly a month now, Sean Merriam has been walking around town with a stuffy nose and a mysterious cough that keeps cracking in his lungs. He knows it’s not Covid, because he tests regularly, and it’s not the flu, which he recovered from a few weeks ago.
The culprit may be respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV, which has increased this season, but he is not sure. It could be anything, really.
“I go through periods where I think it’s gone, and then I cough, and I’m like, yeah, it’s still there,” said Mr Merriam, 55, a video editor who broke his way through McCarren Park in Brooklyn on Thursday. . “It’s just not going to go away.”
Its mysterious virus is part of a whirlwind of illnesses that beset New Yorkers this winter with baffling and miserable symptoms – a toxic cocktail made worse by cramped apartments, subway cars and classrooms, where masks are now optional.
Faced with such a relentless onslaught, New Yorkers seem to have mixed emotions, feeling worried, tired and resigned to a new “new normal”. They not only live among the coronavirus and its seemingly endless variants, but also among a host of other viruses. Infectious disease experts have noted that other respiratory diseases, such as rhinoviruses and adenoviruses, are also circulating.
“There’s always a disease,” said Lester Sykes, 35, who lives in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and was walking Raja, his pharaoh dog. “Everyone is hyper conscious about their health now,” he said.
“It’s all about feelings until you get sick,” he said. “Then when you get sick, you have to deal with it.”
According to city data, the number of Covid cases has jumped about 31% since Thanksgiving and now stands at about 3,600 a day. The actual total workload is much higher, however, as this number does not include home testing, which is now prevalent. Meanwhile, flu cases have skyrocketed over the past two weeks and are at higher levels than at any time since 2018. Good news: RSV appears to have peaked in mid-November and is in falling, although its levels are also still high.
Although city officials have recommended that New Yorkers wear masks in indoor public spaces, few are heeding that call. School attendance also remains relatively high, although it has fallen slightly recently. Restaurants and cafes are busy and offices show no signs of closing. People still go to the cinema, to concert halls and to cocktail bars.
Still, parents are worried, especially those of toddlers born at the start of or during the pandemic, when the lockdown protected them from germs and could have made them more vulnerable to the current crop of viruses.
Mr Merriam’s two daughters, 10 and 13, have had both coronavirus and the flu. He never really worried about strep throat, but now it’s in the news – following fatal cases in Britain where nearly 20 children have died of Strep A, a bacterial infection that causes strep throat – he is more attentive.
Matthew Harris, a Northwell Health physician specializing in pediatric emergency medicine at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in Queens, said influenza and RSV emerged earlier than expected in the fall, and at a volume and severity higher. RSV historically begins to peak from mid-November to late November and stays until spring, he said, but this year the virus arrived a month earlier.
RSV was the predominant viral cause of admission to Cohen, followed by influenza, he said, while Covid was not a significant contributor. Over the past seven days, he said, the hospital has seen an average of about 260 children in the emergency department per day and is operating at between 105 and 120 percent capacity.
He added that many children came with several viruses at the same time, for example, a combination of flu and coronavirus.
“Part of this is probably due to the fact that children are now being exposed to viruses that they had not been exposed to in the immune system for the past two years due to masking and social distancing etc.,” said said Dr. Harris. “The very nature of these viral diseases has changed due to the type of mitigation strategies that have been taken.”
At Cohen, staff members are “overwhelmed,” he said, with increased ER visits and admissions and dealing with a shortage of pediatricians, a national trend.
“The percentage of children requiring admission to intensive care is not much higher than it has been in the past,” he added, “but the total number of children presenting is far beyond anything I have ever seen. I can tell you that if you look at the last 10 years of our children’s hospital, the busiest seven days were the last month.
Judith Cabanas, 28, a mother of two who lives in Astoria, Queens, said she was worried because her 5-year-old son Benjamin had been sick repeatedly for months.
“Every week or two he gets sick, fever, cough, runny nose,” she said. “I am scared.”
Ms Cabanas had to keep Benjamin home from school and said she had to look for children’s Tylenol on Facebook because stores were sold out. Although she is relieved that her 2-year-old daughter Lily appears to be healthy so far, she expects the season to deteriorate.
“I just want winter to be over,” she said.
Sharon Otterman and Troy Closson contributed report.
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