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Utah doctors keep encouraging vaccinations as hospitals fill due to respiratory illnesses

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Intermountain Healthcare doctors are again urging Utahns to get flu and COVID-19 vaccinations as hospitals are at or near capacity dealing with high levels of respiratory illnesses.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Doctors are again urging Utahns to get flu and COVID-19 vaccinations as hospitals are at or near capacity dealing with high levels of respiratory illnesses.

Dr. Per Gesteland, pediatric hospitalist at Primary Children's Hospital and University of Utah Health, said that in the last few weeks, communities in Utah have been hit hard with RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) and influenza and, to a lesser extent, other illnesses like COVID-19, seasonal coronavirus and strep throat.

"The surge has been so large that it has been placing a great deal of strain on our health care delivery system," he said.

Gesteland said this is even more severe at children's facilities, including at Primary Children's Hospital, which has been at capacity for several weeks. The hospital has rescheduled about 50 nonemergency procedures in each of the last three weeks.

Although Gesteland said it seems like the RSV epidemic has peaked, it is still bringing patients to hospitals and keeping physicians busy. The flu, however, is reaching last year's peak levels now, although it is not expected to peak until January or February.

Gesteland said he is hoping after learning about the situation that people are motivated to help prevent the spread of illness to themselves and their loved ones.

Dr. Tamara Sheffield, medical director for preventive medicine at Intermountain Healthcare, said doctors seeing the same issues in adults, with record cases of flu, COVID-19 and RSV. She said the increase of these three respiratory illnesses this year has been called a blizzard.

"We really are seeing an extraordinary amount of infections circulating within the community. And it's not just putting a strain on the health system but also on the medications we use," Sheffield said.

She said monoclonal antibody therapies are not working on the current COVID-19 strain, which means the antivirals they are using are in short supply. Sheffield said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance for how to prioritize antivirals used for flu. The flu treatment for children has become hard to get, she said, adding that some doctors have been taking adult medications and reformulating them for use in children.

Because of limitations in treatment options, Sheffield stressed that the best strategy is prevention — flu vaccinations, the bivalent COVID-19 vaccine, masks, staying home when sick, hand washing and covering coughs.

"(These are) things that we know are great ways to prevent respiratory illnesses from spreading. They are working and need to work for us right now," Sheffield said.

She said it is never too late to get a flu vaccine. She urged people to get their vaccinations today, in order to allow a week or two before the holidays for the vaccine to become effective.

The current flu numbers are the highest the U.S. has seen in the last 10 years, Sheffield said, adding the increase is likely due to lower levels over the last few years and less exposure to illness. She said vaccines help teach immune systems to protect themselves and combat spreading illness.

Gesteland said supply chain issues and demand are also to blame for ongoing limitations in common pediatric medications, including for fever, as well as antibiotics. Although people have been putting information online about how to alter adult medications for children, he said he suggests talking to a pediatrician or pharmacist for advice, checking with neighbors who may have some to spare and treating children with honey, humidifiers or smaller doses of Tylenol or Advil instead of adult cold medications.

He said RSV starts with cold symptoms, a runny nose and sore throat, but it can lead to a more persistent cough, inflammation and pneumonia-like symptoms. If cold symptoms turn into to troubled breathing, Gesteland said, it is time to see a doctor.

Sheffield said the flu is different, as it typically has a very fast onset, instead of starting with a cold. She added that flu and COVID-19 antivirals are most effective if they are used in the first 48 hours that symptoms exist. Shortness of breath and deep, dry coughs can mean a person has COVID-19; Sheffield said, in this case, it can also be good to get tested and get some medication soon.