CDC says RSV has peaked but hospitalizations for flu are at a decade high

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said on Monday that the spread of RSV appears to be slowing, even as Covid cases have risen since Thanksgiving and hospitalizations for flu have remained at their highest level in a decade.

The chairman of the board of the American Medical Association, Dr. “This year’s flu season has had a rough start,” Sandra Fryhofer said at a CDC press briefing. “The flu is imminent. It started early and with Covid and RSV circulating, it’s the perfect storm for a dreadful holiday season.”

Nearly 78,000 people have been hospitalized with the flu since the beginning of October. According to data from the Department of Health and Human Services, about 19,500 people were newly hospitalized in the week ended November 27 – almost double the number of hospitalizations for the flu reported in the previous week.

The CDC estimates that the flu has already caused 8.7 million illnesses since October 1. That’s close to the estimated 9 million cases for the entire 2021-22 flu season.

Flu deaths are already approaching last season’s total: the CDC estimates this year’s death toll is at least 4,500 since Oct.

The combined burden of these viruses is straining hospital capacity nationwide. About 79% of patient beds in US hospitals are full, according to HHS data.

However, cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) likely peaked in parts of the country, such as the South and Southeast, Walensky said, and plateaued in the Mid-Atlantic, New England and Midwest.

Nationally, the number of positive RSV tests per week fell from 19,000 in the week ending November 12 to approximately 7,500 in the week ending November 26.

However, according to NBC News’ tally, average daily Covid cases have increased by 16% in the past two weeks. From the week ending November 22 to the week ending November 29, the CDC recorded an approximately 18% increase in average daily hospital admissions due to COVID.

Walensky said the increase is “particularly alarming as we move into the winter months, when more people gather indoors with less ventilation, and approach the holiday season, when many people reunite with loved ones and across multiple generations.”

Fryhofer noted that because the three viruses have many common symptoms, such as a runny nose, cough, congestion and sore throat, it can be difficult to diagnose a patient right away. Unlike Covid tests, RSV and flu tests must be done in the office or ordered with a prescription.

“It’s going to be a confusing respiratory infection season. It will be a mystery to understand what makes people sick,” Fryhofer said.

Walensky said that the most important way to protect yourself from these viruses is to stay up to date on Covid vaccines and the annual flu vaccine. There is no vaccine yet to prevent RSV.

CDC data shows that people who take updated Covid supplements are less likely to die than those who have been vaccinated but have not received a new supplement. Bivalent boosters also seem to reduce a person’s chances of contracting a Covid infection relative to the original vaccines.

Flu vaccines are also a good match for circulating strains this year, Fryhofer said.

But Walensky noted that some groups with the highest flu hospitalization rates — pregnant women, those under 5 or over 65 — now have lower immunization rates compared to the same period last year. “Influenza vaccination rates among pregnant women are about 12% lower than last season,” he said.

Walensky recommended that people wear masks if they travel by plane, train, bus or other public transport; if immunosuppressed or at high risk of serious illness; or if they live in counties with high Covid levels.

He added that the CDC is investigating the possibility of officially recommending masks in some countries based on the general spread of respiratory viruses – not just Covid – but “there is no need to wait for CDC action to put on a mask.”

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