As Americans head for the holiday season, a rapidly worsening flu season is weighing on hospitals, which are already overwhelmed with patients sick with other respiratory infections.
The Children’s Hospital Association, which includes Children’s of Alabama, and the American Academy of Pediatrics called on the Biden administration to declare a state of emergency last week to provide capacity support to help with the surge in hospitalizations associated with ongoing mental health of children coincide emergency.
“The confluence of these capacity issues in children’s hospitals and communities requires agility and flexibility that can only be provided by a Presidential emergency declaration under the Stafford Act or the National Emergencies Act and a public health emergency declaration,” the associations wrote in a letter to the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.
The virus hit Alabama earlier than usual, and infection rates were at their highest since the swine flu pandemic of 2009.
Children’s Hospital of Alabama was operating at full capacity in early November, and patients were waiting up to 10 hours. Pediatricians reported that outpatient visits increased more than tenfold between September and October and remained high into November.
More than half of the states have high or very high flu levels, unusually high for this early start of the season, the government reported Friday. These 27 states are primarily located in the South and Southwest, but also include a growing number in the Northeast, Midwest, and West.
Alabama has already seen one child die this flu season. Although infection rates dropped slightly for the week of November 6 compared to previous weeks, according to the latest information from the Alabama Department of Health. At that time, every county in the state was reporting significant influenza activity.
This comes as children’s hospitals are already grappling with a surge in illness from RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, a common cause of cold-like symptoms that can be severe for infants and the elderly.
And COVID-19 still contributes to more than 3,000 hospitalizations a day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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In Atlanta, Dr. Mark Griffiths called the mix “viral jambalaya”. He said children’s hospitals in his area have at least 30% more patients than usual this time of year, and many patients are being forced to wait in emergency rooms for beds to open.
“I tell parents that COVID has been the ultimate bully. It bullied every other virus for two years,” said Griffiths, medical director of the emergency room at a downtown Atlanta children’s health hospital.
As COVID-19 rates drop, “they’re coming back in full force,” he said
The winter flu season usually doesn’t start until December or January. Hospitalization rates for flu haven’t been this high this early since the 2009 swine flu pandemic, CDC officials say. The highest rates are among those over 65 and children under the age of 5, the agency said.
“It’s so important for people at higher risk to get vaccinated,” CDC’s Lynnette Brammer said in a statement Friday.
But flu shots are down compared to other years, particularly among adults, possibly because the past two seasons have been mild. Flu shots are recommended for almost all Americans who are at least 6 months old or older.
Adults can get RSV too, and this infection can be especially dangerous for older adults who are frail or have chronic illnesses, doctors say. There is no vaccine against RSV yet, although some are in development.
An infectious disease specialist urged Americans to take precautions before gathering for Thanksgiving, including avoiding public crowds, taking COVID-19 tests before gatherings, and wearing masks indoors — especially if you’re old or are frail or will be around someone who is.
“No one wants to bring a virus to the table,” said Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and Children’s Hospital Association last week called on the Biden administration to declare an emergency and begin a national response to “the alarming rise in pediatric respiratory illnesses.”
An emergency declaration would allow for a waiver of Medicaid, Medicare or children’s health insurance program requirements so doctors and hospitals could share resources and access emergency funding, the groups said in a letter.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.