‘Viral jambalaya’: early flu adds to woes for US hospitals

As Americans head into the holiday season, a rapidly intensifying flu season is overloading hospitals already overloaded with patients sick with other respiratory infections.

More than half of the states have high or very high levels of flu, unusually high for this early in the season, the government said Friday. Those 27 states are mostly in the South and Southwest, but include growing numbers in the Northeast, Midwest, and West.

This is happening as children’s hospitals are already dealing with a surge in illness from RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, a common cause of cold-like symptoms that can be severe for infants and the elderly. And COVID-19 continues to contribute to more than 3,000 hospital admissions each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Atlanta, Dr. Mark Griffiths describes the mix as a “viral jambalaya.” He said children’s hospitals in his area have at least 30% more patients than usual for this time of year, and many patients are forced to wait in emergency rooms for beds to open.

“I tell parents that COVID was the ultimate harasser. It harassed all the other viruses for two years,” said Griffiths, emergency medical director at a Children’s Health Care of Atlanta center hospital.

With COVID-19 rates dropping, “they’re coming back in full force,” he said.

Winter flu season usually doesn’t start until December or January. Flu hospitalization rates have not been this high since the 2009 swine flu pandemic, CDC officials say. The highest rates are among those 65 and older and children younger than 5, the agency said.

“It is very important that people most at risk get vaccinated,” Lynnette Brammer of the CDC said in a statement Friday.

But flu vaccinations are down from other years, particularly among adults, possibly because the past two seasons have been mild. Flu shots are recommended for almost all Americans who are at least 6 months of age or older.

Adults can contract RSV, too, and that infection can be especially dangerous for older adults who are frail or have chronic illnesses, doctors say. There is no RSV vaccine yet, although some are in development.

An infectious disease specialist urged Americans to take precautions before gathering for Thanksgiving, including avoiding public crowds, getting tested for COVID-19 before gathering and wearing masks indoors, especially if he is old or frail, or will be close to someone who is.

“Nobody wants to bring a virus to the table,” said Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and Children’s Hospital Association this week urged the Biden administration to declare an emergency and mount a national response to the “alarming rise in pediatric respiratory illnesses.” An emergency declaration would allow waivers from Medicaid, Medicare or the Children’s Health Insurance Program requirements so that doctors and hospitals can share resources and access emergency funds, the groups said in a letter.


AP writer Heather Hollingsworth contributed to this report.


The Associated Press Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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