The United States is once again facing an onslaught of viral illnesses in the run-up to Thanksgiving and other winter holiday gatherings.
While flu activity still remains at low levels overall, “we are now seeing sustained increases throughout the country“, especially in southeastern states, such as Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina, said Alicia Budd, head of the national influenza surveillance team at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We expect to continue to see many more weeks of increasing flu activity,” he said.
Budd’s team estimates that at least 780,000 people have contracted the flu so far this season, leading to at least 8,000 hospitalizations and 490 deaths, including one child.
Influenza type A predominates, specifically H1N1. That strain generally isn’t as hard on older adults, Budd said, but he added that his team is also looking at other strains that can severely affect anyone.
Is this year’s flu vaccine effective?
The strains circulating mirror those included in this year’s flu vaccine, Budd said. “That bodes well for how effective the vaccine will be in preventing infections” or at least serious illnesses, he said.
CDC Director Dr. Mandy Cohen said it’s not too late to get vaccinated.
“These are the months when the flu likes to circulate, especially after everyone travels and gathers for Thanksgiving,” he told NBC News.
Cohen has been traveling around Texas this week encouraging people to get vaccinated. While the flu is a focus, he said respiratory syncytial virus levels are high in Texas and throughout the Southeast.
“RSV is definitely here and particularly affects our youngest children,” Cohen said.
Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center, said RSV appears to be striking earlier than usual, a change from pre-Covid years.
“Normally, the peak would peak around January, even February,” Jetelina said. “Now we’re starting to see it peak around November and December, which is really quite abnormal.”
In fact, it’s a “high-volume year” when it comes to the spread of RSV, said Dr. Jeffrey Kahn, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UT Southwestern Medical Center and Children’s Health in Dallas.
“The numbers we’re seeing this year far exceed what we’ve had in the past,” Kahn said. Most children sick with RSV are full of congestion, coughing and wheezing.
Children who were born prematurely or who have underlying problems with lung or heart function are at greatest risk.
So far this season, the overall RSV hospitalization rate is 7.3 per 100,000 people, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.
The increase occurs amid a shortage of a new drug intended to prevent RSV infection.
Beyfortus, approved by the Food and Drug Administration in July, is intended for babies during their first RSV season. Children up to age 2 who are at high risk for severe illness from the virus can receive additional doses during their second RSV season.
On Thursday, the CDC and FDA said the agencies had worked to release an additional 77,000 doses of Beyfortus. It was unclear Friday whether the action would resolve the shortage or simply help.
The supply of Beyfortus at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston remains low, said medical director Dr. Stanley Spinner. “I’m afraid we won’t have many left over the next few weeks,” he said.
“We know parents are frustrated,” Cohen said. “We expect to see additional doses in the coming weeks and into the RSV season. We are working with the manufacturers on that.”
What happens with Covid?
The number of positive Covid cases appears to be stabilizing after a wave of illnesses in the summer, Cohen said. “Unfortunately, we expect to see that increase in the coming months,” she said.
Data of WastewaterSCANA group that receives data from wastewater collection sites in 36 states three times a week looking for evidence of viruses discharged into wastewater shows that Covid remains widespread, from the northeast to the western part of the US. .
Covid persists, said Alexandria Boehm, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University and principal investigator and program director of WastewaterSCAN. “It’s something to keep in mind as we approach the holiday season,” Boehm said.
Given the increase in viral activity, some experts are once again turning to wearing masks.
“I’m a mom, I work and I don’t have time to get sick,” said Jetelina, who also publishes a newsletter called “Your Local Epidemiologist.”
“It’s a very small, simple tool that I can use to reduce my risk,” he said.