Tripledemic 2022: Rise in flu, RSV, COVID cases a concern this winter, experts say

As summer wound down and the United States headed into fall and winter, doctors feared Americans would experience a “twindemic” — a situation in which both the flu and COVID-19 are spreading at the same time.

But experts told ABC News the country could now be at risk of a “triple disease” as doctors see early rises in other pediatric respiratory viruses, particularly respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, respiratory diseases are occurring earlier and in more people than in recent years.

The federal health agency says there has also been an early spike in flu activity in most parts of the US, suggesting this season could be much more severe than the previous two seasons.

As of Monday afternoon, U.S. pediatric bed occupancy is the highest in two years, with 75% of the estimated 40,000 beds filled with patients, according to an analysis by ABC News.

COVID-19 infections have not yet started to rise, CDC data shows. But in recent years, the virus has spread around Thanksgiving.

Experts said a combination of dwindling immunity to COVID and lack of exposure to other viruses combined with tight indoor gatherings is fueling a “perfect storm”.

“The problem is mainly that the immunity of the population is low and the children are once again gathered, and this facilitates the rapid spread of viruses like RSV,” said Dr. John Brownstein, epidemiologist and chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital and an ABC News contributor. “And because of the sheer volume of infections, when you have that larger denominator, you have a situation where a proportion of those children are going to need hospital treatment. And because of that, our hospitals are few and far between, not just in terms of bed capacity, but critical staffing of those beds.”

He added: “So the combination of shortages, bed capacity and rising viral disease makes for an unfortunate perfect storm that we are experiencing everywhere right now.”

MORE | RSV in children: symptoms, treatment and what parents should know

Resurgence of respiratory viruses

In the last two years there have been other restrictions such as masking, social distancing, capacity restrictions and school closures. This meant fewer Americans were also exposed to other viruses, including the flu and RSV.

Now, with little to no mitigation action in cities and states across the country, this is leading to a resurgence of these viruses.

“That leaves only a lot of children, especially small children who have been born since March 2020 and have not yet had an RSV infection,” said Dr. Larry Kociolek, medical director of Chicago’s Lurie Children’s Hospital, told ABC News. “And that will increase the ability of the virus to spread and increase the number of children who will be infected.”

According to the CDC, flu test positivity rates rose from 1.27% for the week ended September 24 to 4.38% for the week ended October 15, higher than usual for this time of year, experts said.

SEE ALSO: Growing concerns about rising flu cases and when to get vaccinated

Brownstein said another challenging issue for hospitals is staff shortages.

“We already have an overworked and overburdened workforce, you have many who have left the healthcare industry because of burnout,” he said. “And then on top of that you have an infection among health workers.”

importance of vaccination

Doctors told ABC News that getting vaccinated is vital for children to avoid serious complications. Children can be hospitalized with any of these infections, and those with underlying medical conditions are most at risk.

“If your child has not yet received the flu shot, it is imperative that they do [gets one] as soon as possible,” said Dr. Federico Laham, medical director for pediatric infectious diseases at Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, told ABC News. “As we know, it takes a few weeks for an answer to come. In some children who, especially after these last two years with very little flu blood flow, let the immune system become a bit sluggish and forgetful. So it’s important to remember that.”

Laham continued: “The same goes for the COVID vaccine. Some children developed COVID early in the pandemic and then didn’t get the vaccine. We know it works, we know it’s extremely safe.”

In addition, experts say parents could consider letting their children wear masks and ensuring they practice good hand hygiene and wash hands thoroughly with soap and water.

“The other thing schools and kids can do is make sure you bring hand sanitizer to school so you can clean your hands and wipes to wipe down surfaces,” Dr. Tom Murray, associate professor of pediatrics in the Department of Infectious Diseases at Yale University School of Medicine, told ABC News. “And again, common touchpoints, although wiping contaminated surfaces is particularly important with viruses like RSV.”

ABC News’ Eric Strauss contributed to this report.

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