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Teddy bear with a face mask and stethoscope (via Myriam Zilles on Unsplash)

(Updated at 4:15 p.m.) While the wave of COVID-19 cases seen over the past two winters hasn’t yet materialized this year, increased reports of other respiratory illnesses have local hospitals and health officials bracing for a particularly tough cold season.

Fairfax County and other Northern Virginia public health leaders are urging community members “to maintain their vigilance” and help prevent the spread of influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which are both surging earlier than usual.

“This is especially important because as temperatures cool, we spend more time indoors with others, and may travel to gather with friends and family for celebrations who are at increased risk of severe complications from infection,” the Northern Virginia Regional Commission (NVRC) said in a news release yesterday.

Inova activated its emergency plan to handle a surge in patients last month. The health care provider resumed normal operations on Nov. 8, but said “volumes continue to be high across the health system, particularly in pediatric services.”

HCA Healthcare, which owns Reston Hospital Center and Tysons Emergency, said its facilities in the area have also seen an increase in flu and RSV cases.

“We have been able to manage this increase in volume. We are increasing our staff and streamlining our processes in anticipation of a challenging winter season,” Reston Hospital Center Chief Medical Officer Dr. Carnell Cooper said.

Flu season is here

The Fairfax County Health Department confirmed that both flu and RSV cases have been rising locally.

“There is an increasing trend in visits to emergency departments and urgent care centers for influenza-like illness and laboratory results of confirmatory tests, and we have investigated a higher number of outbreaks than expected for this time of year,” the FCHD told FFXnow.

Virginia is seeing a very high level of activity for influenza-like illnesses (ILL), as of the week that ended Nov. 5, according to the Virginia Department of Health. The rating by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is based on outpatient visits to health care providers for respiratory illness involving a cough or sore throat and fever.

Respiratory illness activity levels by state, as of Nov. 5 (via CDC)

Per VDH, 9% of emergency department and urgent care center visits in the state are ILL-related, with kids 4 and younger making up 21.4% of visits — continuing a trend that health officials fear signals a worse flu season than in recent years, according to the NVRC.

While no deaths have been reported, Virginia has recorded 5,997 infections and 58 outbreaks so far this flu season, which started in mid-October and typically peaks between December and February.

“While it is unclear what exactly is driving this earlier increase in ILI activity from previous years, based on recent flu season reporting from the Southern Hemisphere, we anticipated this early peak to our own flu season,” the FCHD said.

County health officials recommends annual flu vaccinations for everyone 6 months and older. Shots are available from the county by appointment and at pharmacies, doctor’s offices and other locations in the community.

What to know about RSV

In addition to the disproportionate number of flu infections, young kids are getting hit hard by RSV, a common virus that produces usually mild, cold-like symptoms but “can be very dangerous for babies, young children or those who are immunocompromised,” the NVRC says.

“Emergency department and urgent care visits with diagnosed RSV have been increasing rapidly since early September,” the commission said. Read More

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