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COVID hospitalizations climb; what’s the outlook for Christmas?

Amid ‘tripledemic’ — flu, RSV and COVID-19 — people are spending more time indoors and at gatherings, contributing to illness spike

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An illustration for the omicron variant.

Alex Cochran, Deseret News

COVID-19, flu and RSV cases are hitting communities across the country, driving what’s been dubbed a “tripledemic” of respiratory illness. And the number of people who are being hospitalized, along with a spike in doctor visits, indicate a rough health season amid the holidays.

“A post-Thanksgiving uptick in COVID-19 patients at U.S. hospitals is arriving even as health systems contend with waves of feverish, coughing people stricken with RSV and influenza infections,” The Washington Post reports.

ABC News reported on a “major spike in respiratory illnesses straining hospitals.”

The Post’s data tracking system found hospitalizations were the highest they’d been in the last quarter, with more than 35,000 patients admitted. The data suggests an increase that started just days before Thanksgiving in a trend that hit most states last week.

That’s worrying health officials because hospitals already feel pressure from a growing number of cases of influenza and respiratory syncytial virus infection, often called simply RSV.

Close to 20,000 were hospitalized with flu Thanksgiving week, which is a recent record.

Winter typically provides more opportunity to pass contagious respiratory viruses around as people gather indoors and the number of holiday gatherings increases.

As for COVID-19, there is a bit of better news.

“This winter, most people in the United States have some degree of immunity because of vaccination, prior infection or both, which should reduce the severity of infections,” according to The Washington Post. “And those who do become sick have a broader suite of therapeutics to accelerate recovery and keep them out of the hospital.”

Illness everywhere

Still, numbers are rolling in from around the country. For instance:

  • Los Angeles Daily News reported that 1,200 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Los Angeles County, “continuing a surge in daily cases that could soon lead to a renewed requirement for people to wear masks at all indoor public spaces. About 10% of those patients were in intensive care.

“The county has been logging steady increases in daily infections and hospitalizations since the beginning of November. As of Friday, the county’s average daily number of new infections over the past seven days was 3,053, up from 2,121 a week ago,” the article said.

  • New Mexico’s KOB4 said Friday that the state has seen 650 new cases since the Thanksgiving holiday. Of those, 235 people are hospitalized with COVID-19.
  • In Illinois, COVID-19 hospitalizations “have jumped more than 26%, in the last week alone,” according to the Chicago Sun-Times. And the number is climbing. The week after Thanksgiving, 1,509 people were hospitalized with COVID-19. That’s reportedly the highest number since August “and a figure that’s pointed to hit a nearly 10-month high by next week.”
  • In Northern California, influenza is the story, according to KRCA. “Health officials say part of the problem is immunity declined after people were so careful to limit viral transmission during the pandemic. Now, the flu is getting more of a chance to spread this season.”

“People are gathering closer together, not wearing masks, and so they haven’t been exposed to the flu in a few years and now we are starting to see it spread,” Dr. Rich Florio, with Kaiser Permanente, told KRCA.

Tracking illness

Meanwhile, the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota reported that 47 states were reporting high or very high flu activity as of Friday. It said that 19,000 people were hospitalized for flu, with the rates highest in older adults, particularly the very elderly. Children under 4 had the second highest number, then adults 50 to 64.

The center said most of those who were hospitalized had “underlying health conditions,” including high blood pressure and heart disease. In children, asthma was a common health condition.

The center cited data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that the seven-day average number of COVID-19 cases nationwide as of Nov. 30 was 43,300, which was actually a slight decline from the previous week, though hospitalizations reflected a 17.6% increase.

COVID-19 omicron subvariant BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 now make up nearly two-thirds of the cases confirmed by lab tests. But another — XBB — is starting to show up more often, too. The Minnesota group said that “XBB has fueled new surges in parts of Asia.”

In a Word Health Organization briefing Friday, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that the omicron variant now has 500 “sublineages” that are highly transmissible and can bypass previous immunity. He added that the omicron variant has now been circulating for a year.

He also said that the WHO believes that “at least 90%” of the world population has some level of immunity to COVID-19 either because they’ve been vaccinated or they’ve been infected.