The CDC reports seeing the highest influenza hospitalization rates going back a decade. 

In a sight eerily reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic, hospitals are once again setting up tests to care for an overwhelming influx of patients fighting respiratory illnesses. Only this time, it’s not COVID. 

This time, hospitals are fighting a surge of patients with respiratory illnesses that range from RSV to flu to combinations of different viruses. And doctors admit that because the sicknesses are hitting earlier than most flu seasons, they are worried that this surge of illnesses and patients needing hospitalizations may not even be the peak yet. Here’s what nurses may expect. 

Respiratory Illnesses Surging Across the Country

Essentially, the U.S. is seeing a huge influx of respiratory illnesses across the country and across all age groups. The increase in infections is being seen earlier than the normal flu season, which prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to host a special telebriefing on November 4. “Activity is high in the United States for this time of year,” the CDC said. Normally, flu season is the busiest from December to February, but this year, infections seemed to start in early fall. And unfortunately, no one can say for sure if that early increase means the worst is over—or still yet to come. 

“The real question is whether it’s shooting to an early peak or whether it’s going to be a sustained rise, and I don’t think there’s enough evidence right now to really tell,” Dr. Cameron Kaiser, deputy public health officer for San Diego County, told The San Diego Union-Tribune. 

In the webinar, the CDC explained that the U.S. is seeing a resurgence of non-COVID-19 respiratory viruses, specifically the flu, RSV, and Rhino and animal viruses. Tests are showing abnormally high results for: 

  • Influenza A

  • Influenza 2

  • Influenza 3

  • H1N1 

The organization also noted that experts think that the resurgence is linked to the pandemic, primarily that many children were able to avoid other respiratory viruses during the pandemic and are now being infected with them for the first time as social distancing guidelines have been dropped. And unfortunately, along with an increase in infections, there has been an increase in hospitalizations from those infections as well.  In fact, the CDC reported seeing the highest influenza hospitalization rates going back a decade. Children under the age of 4, the elderly, and those with other medical conditions are the most at risk and likely to be hospitalized. 

Physicians and other healthcare on Twitter are also sharing stories of what’s happening in their own facilities. 

How Hospitals Are Responding

The result of those increased infections and hospitalizations has led some hospitals to take drastic measures to ensure that both those patients and patients with other conditions can continue to be treated. 

In San Diego, CA, an early flu season prompted two different hospitals: Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas, Jacobs Medical Center at UCSD Health in La Jolla and Sharp Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa, to erect tents outside of the ER to see respiratory illness-infected patients. Hospital administrators explained that the decision was made to allow other critically ill patients to continue to be able to access care in the ER. 

UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh also announced on Monday that they had set up tents outside of their ER to care for pediatric patients dealing with respiratory illnesses. Their Facebook page showed a video of Raymond Pitetti, MD, director of the Emergency Department at UPMC Children’s, explaining what options families have when visiting the hospital. 

Images: UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh/Facebook

As the CDC and health officials explained, no one knows for sure if this surge in infections will continue or ease up as winter progresses, but thanks to lessons hard learned during the pandemic, they are preparing for infections to continue. And unfortunately, the situation could end up similar to how COVID turned out, with staff members getting sick, affecting care. 

“If you look at the growth that we’ve seen in cases, it’s only just a matter of time,” Dr. William Tseng, an internal medicine specialist with Kaiser Permanente in San Diego told the paper. “We know that it’s only at the beginning of the curve in terms of flu, and RSV and COVID are a simultaneous threat.”

What Nurses Can Do

First and foremost, the CDC and doctors are urging all healthcare workers to get vaccinated against the flu and COVID (and yes, you can get both at the same time!) to help decrease symptoms, and complications, and help ensure healthcare workers are actually able to work through all these surges. If possible, nurses should also encourage those around them to get vaccinated—unfortunately, no vaccine for RSV exists yet, but vaccination against the flu and COVID can help prevent dangerous complications and co-infections. 

Secondly, healthcare officials acknowledged that nurses and other healthcare workers may need to take the lessons of the pandemic and protect their mental and physical health. While the pandemic may have led many nurses to take on extra shifts and work more, there is only so much that nurses can do. Getting yelled at by patients, going to work knowing you will be understaffed and overstressed, and dealing with impossible workloads have become a norm for many nurses, but this flu season, it’s important for nurses to balance the need for patient care and self-care. Your job is important, but so are you. Encourage those in your community to consider infection mitigation behaviors, such as masking or staying home with known cold symptoms, and be sure to keep yourself as healthy as possible too.


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