What health experts across the country are calling the “triple-demic” of respiratory illnesses took some time to reach the Walla Walla area, but it’s decidedly here now.
Dr. Daniel Kaminsky, head of public health for Walla Walla County, said this week the trifecta of flu, RSV and COVID-19 has led to increased hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions everywhere.
In Walla Walla, infection preventionist Elizabeth Bowen with Providence St. Mary Medical Center said that during the past three weeks the number of people with flu coming into the hospital has risen by almost 50%.
“Over the past three weeks in Walla Walla County, weekly influenza cases increased from nine to 187, with 308 new influenza cases since Nov. 1,” Kaminsky said in a news release.
And cases of respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, are hammering the young and old alike. The common illness usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms and most people recover in a week or two, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But the virus can be serious in infants and the elderly; it is the most common cause of bronchiolitis, an inflammation of the small airways in the lung, as well as pneumonia in children younger than 1 in the United States. Currently there is no vaccine against the virus.
Numbers of people affected by RSV have doubled since this time in 2021, while COVID-19 “continues to be a menace,” Kaminsky said.
As of Nov. 30 Walla Walla County had a seven-day count of 58 people diagnosed with the coronavirus, according to the state Department of Health.
Columbia County had one person diagnosed and Umatilla County is reporting 84 new cases of COVID but no new deaths, as of Tuesday.
In a perspective written by epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina, posted Dec. 6, the scientist and CDC consultant said the number of people in the United States ill right now is unprecedented.
Referencing a Dec. 2 update from the CDC, Jetelina said health care experts have never seen such high levels of “influenza-like illness” — fever, cough and sore throat — activity at this time of year.
Some of the activity is at a point unseen before 2019, climbing into a previously unused category of “very high.”
This, she pointed out, is a general indication of the climate of respiratory health in the U.S.
Health industry publication, “Inside Medicine,” reported that for the first time during the pandemic, flu hospitalizations overtook COVID-19 hospitalizations last week, Jetelina wrote.
“This may be a one-off occurrence since COVID-19 hospitalizations are increasing now, too, but it is noteworthy.”
As for COVID, signs in the U.S. are pointing to another rising wave of cases, she said. “For example, SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater is rapidly increasing across all regions.”
Especially concerning is the fast rise in COVID-related hospitalizations among older adults, “which has exponentially increased 28% in the past two weeks,” partly or wholly due to “abysmal vaccination rates — only 1 in 3 adults over the age of 65+ have their fall COVID-19 booster,” the expert said, labeling it a public health failure.
“Without a recent booster, many people are technically vaccinated but not protected,” she said.
CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, recently noted hospitalizations are the highest now than they have been in the past decade, Jetelina said, and very concerning given “a backdrop of burnt-out health care workers and low staff levels.”
Kaminsky echoed that Tuesday in his news release, saying the immense pressure on nurses, doctors and facilities is being felt locally as much as everywhere else.
He and hospital officials are asking the public to only use emergency care for true health emergencies, including chest pain, stroke symptoms, feeling extremely ill, trouble breathing, dizziness, high fever and if they are seriously hurt.
In less serious health matters, people should use their own doctor and clinic or walk-in clinics, options that provide quality care for less money, Kaminsky said.
Everyone has the ability to protect their health and that of others as much as possible, he said. “We each have the power to slow the spread of respiratory illness in our community and to protect ourselves and others through proper respiratory etiquette and getting the COVID and influenza vaccines.”