Health leaders are warning of a “perfect storm” of respiratory viruses occurring this holiday season, with the U.S. experiencing increased flu, RSV and COVID-19 activity.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Monday that the country has seen higher levels of both the flu and RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, than is typical for this time of year. Speaking with reporters, Walensky said 47 jurisdictions throughout the U.S. have reported “high” or “very high” levels of flu-like illness, compared with 36 jurisdictions reporting such levels the previous week.
So far this season, the flu has caused at least 8.7 million illnesses, 78,000 hospitalizations and 4,500 deaths, according to CDC estimates, with 14 deaths occurring among children. The cumulative flu hospitalization rate captured within a CDC surveillance network also is higher than it’s been in roughly a decade.
Joining Walensky on the call with reporters Monday was Dr. Sandra Fryhofer, an internal medicine physician and chairperson of the Board of Trustees for the American Medical Association, who said the current flu season is off to “a rough start.”
“Flu’s here, it started early, and with COVID and RSV also circulating, it’s a perfect storm for a terrible holiday season,” Fryhofer said.
Coinciding with the uptick in flu-like activity this season has been the higher burden of RSV. The CDC reported a cumulative RSV-associated hospitalization rate of 25 per 100,000 for the week ending Nov. 26, compared with a rate of 8.5 per 100,000 during the same period in 2021.
The U.S. also has seen an uptick in COVID-19 activity of late, according to Walensky. CDC data shows the average number of related hospitalizations over seven days increased by 17%, from 3,768 admissions reported from Nov. 20 through Nov. 26 to 4,425 from Nov. 27 through Dec. 3.
“This rise in cases and hospitalizations is especially worrisome as we move into the winter months when more people are assembling indoors with less ventilation, and as we approach the holiday season when many are gathering with loved ones across multiple generations,” Walensky said.
The uptick in respiratory virus activity has coincided with declines in vaccination coverage among key groups.
Flu vaccination coverage for all children was estimated at around 40% for the week ending Nov. 19 – the same mark for the same time last year but 5.5 percentage points lower than the same time in November 2020, according to CDC figures. Among pregnant women, flu vaccination coverage was pegged at 36.5% at the end of October compared with 48.6% at the same time in 2021 and 58.2% at the end of September 2020.
Findings from a Kaiser Family Foundation survey released in September also showed that 19% of parents with children between the ages of 6 months and 4 years reported their children had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while 53% of parents said they would “definitely not” get their child vaccinated. The foundation’s survey findings also showed that 6 in 10 women who were pregnant or were planning to become pregnant believed that pregnant women should not get a COVID-19 vaccine, or were unsure if that sentiment was true.
“There is now vaccine fatigue,” Walensky said. “We have seen undervaccination in many diseases, not just in influenza and COVID-19.”