Respiratory syncytial virus outbreaks are already filling pediatric beds at hospitals across the United States, including in Utah, where Primary Children’s Hospital has postponed some surgeries and outpatient treatments due to a surge in RSV and flu cases.
Older adults are vulnerable to RSV, too. Hospitalization rates for seniors in the United States are about 10 times higher than pre-COVID-19 pandemic levels at this point in the virus season, CNN reported, citing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data showing about six of every 100,000 seniors have been hospitalized with RSV.
While that’s much less than what’s being seen in children, the respiratory virus that usually means mild cold-like symptoms for adults can be dangerous to those who are over 65 years old, or who have chronic heart or lung disease, or weakened immune systems, according to the CDC.
“Anybody can get RSV,” said Janelle Delgadillo, an epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health and Human Services. “The concern regarding children and adults over 65 is that they tend to be more severely ill. But really, anyone can have an RSV infection.”
The state is not currently tracking RSV cases, including those serious enough to require hospitalization, she said, adding it’s clear that respiratory illnesses with flu-like symptoms like coughs and sore throats are spreading quickly throughout the state. COVID-19 cases are also on the rise, according to state data.
RSV, influenza and COVID-19 all tend “to take advantage of vulnerable populations,” especially very young children and older adults with medical issues, said Dr. Brandon Webb, an associate professor of infectious diseases with Intermountain Healthcare.
“There’s a reason why we don’t have RSV on the radar for adults and that’s primarily because we hear about it most in the very, very young — infants to under 2 years old, where immunity is the lowest,” Webb said, although doctors who treat adults at high risk for viral infections have always recognized the danger they face from RSV.
“The risk factors for having severe RSV are the same for having severe COVID and for having severe influenza,” he said, adding more Utah adults are being hit with RSV even though “it’s really difficult to measure, because we certainly aren’t running out and testing everyone with a cold.”
Webb said there’s likely thousands of Utah adults with RSV right now who assume they just have a cold, since both usually result in an upper respiratory infection and share common symptoms such as:
- Runny nose.
- Nasal congestion.
- Fever that generally doesn’t last very long.
The signs that he said indicate a possibly more severe infection that needs to be evaluated by a medical professional include:
- Shortness of breath.
- Fever that is unrelenting.
- Feeling too sick to get out of bed.
RSV, along with influenza, largely disappeared during much of the COVID-19 pandemic thanks to masking, social distancing and other measures taken to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus. Now, with many people no longer taking those precautions, RSV and the flu are making a strong comeback.
The percent positivity for RSV tests in patients who visited a doctor had reached the 15% range last week, Webb said, a much higher result than usual this early in the virus season. Hospitalizations among adults with RSV are up, too, he said.
“We are seeing more adult admissions with RSV, both in the medical wards but also in the ICU. Although it’s not overwhelming yet, those numbers are unusually high for November,” he said, noting the region’s largest health care system is also bracing for more adult flu cases as well as an increase in COVID-19 as new variants emerge.
Unlike influenza and COVID-19, there is no vaccine yet for RSV. Both Delgadillo and Webb said Utahns should get their annual flu shots and stay up to date on COVID-19 vaccinations. Flu and COVID-19 vaccines are available to anyone 6 months and older, and there’s an updated COVID-19 booster shot for those at least 5 years old.
With what some are calling a “tripledemic” of deadly viruses, Webb said it’s important to recognize what may seem like a common cold could be a much more serious illness, especially if it spreads to someone at high risk. To protect others, he recommended the same measures advised against COVID-19, including:
- Stay home when sick.
- Cover coughs and sneezes.
- Frequent hand washing.
- Wear a mask.
- Avoid the very young and very old, and others who are vulnerable to severe illness.
“Commonsense practices make a big difference when it comes to protecting vulnerable groups that are at really high risk,” Webb said. “Don’t go to that family dinner where great-grandma may be there. Don’t go visit a friend or family member who has cancer. ... Don’t go hold that new grandbaby until you’re not feeling any symptoms.”