RSV on decline but nasty flu strain raging in Georgia

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta reports sick children are still crowding their emergency rooms and intensive care beds

While a recent wave of childhood RSV infections is showing signs of receding in Georgia, cases of the flu are rising dramatically and filling up hospitals in levels not seen in a decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the Southeast, a particularly nasty flu strain that is often associated with severe illness and hospitalization is currently the dominant strain, according to the CDC. It’s a subtype of the influenza A virus — known by the scientific name of H3N2 — and can be especially hard on children and older adults.

Very sick children have been swamping pediatric hospitals in Georgia and across the country.

In Georgia, 83% of pediatric ICU beds are occupied, according to the most recent federal data. That’s a sharp rise from April when it was just under 60%.

In this file photo, Meredith Legree of Lakeville, Minnesota, holds her frightened son Andrew, 3, as respiratory therapist Sirena Ortega holds a mask to his face for a nebulizer treatment to help decrease inflammation in his airway and allow him to breathe easier as they waited for the results of his RSV test at Children’s Hospital of St. Paul. (Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

“Currently, the United States is experiencing a resurgence in the circulation of non-COVID-19 respiratory viruses,” Dr. José R. Romero, Director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases told reporters during a media telebriefing Friday. He pointed to elevated levels of flu; RSV, an upper respiratory illness common among children under age 5; and rhinoviruses, which are the most common cause of colds.

“However, it’s important to note that COVID-19 is not gone.”

The vast majority of children hospitalized in the intensive care unit at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta are for respiratory viruses according to a spokesperson. Flu-related hospitalizations are the driving force behind the current onslaught.

RSV, which had surged in infants and young children in August, September, and October, has been slowing down in recent weeks. The number of children hospitalized for COVID-19 at Children’s is a distant third.

Dr. Andi Shane, division chief for pediatric infectious disease at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Emory University said most of the children hospitalized at Children’s for the flu have not been vaccinated. The CDC recommends everyone 6 months and older get a flu shot every year by the end of October, though the agency stresses getting the vaccine later is better than not getting at all. A flu vaccine can prevent infection, and among those who still become sick with flu, vaccination can reduce the severity of the illness

CDC data shows flu vaccine coverage among all children this year is at 24.8%, comparable to the vaccine rates at the same time last year of 25.2%.

Scientists Warn Flu Cases Are on the Rise

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Last month, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta said they were seeing an “unprecedented” number of sick children, forcing them to expand their emergency room with a tent erected in a parking lot. The hospital is also urging non-pediatric emergency rooms to care for some children, especially older teens, instead of moving them to Children’s, according to a spokesperson.

A hospital spokesperson declined to provide specific numbers but said the surge is two to three times their normal volume of patients.

On Friday afternoon, according to the hospital system’s website, emergency room wait times were more than three hours at all Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Hospitals.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, as people stayed home and wore masks, cases of flu and RSV fell to historically low levels. Many people, especially young children, didn’t develop immunity because they weren’t exposed to viruses. Now, amid the loosening of COVID precautions, these illnesses are making a roaring comeback.

There’s no vaccine for RSV and by the age of 2, nearly all children have had the virus. Symptoms often look like a common cold and can include a runny nose, congestion, and fever. But in some cases, RSV can turn dangerous, especially among infants, leading to breathing trouble and complications such as pneumonia.

Meanwhile, the flu, which got off to an unusually early and drastic start this fall, continues to intensify.

Georgia is one of nine states in the country, along with Washington, D.C., with “very high” flu activity, according to the latest CDC flu activity map.

The Georgia Department of Public Health reports an estimated 6% of patient visits to doctors were for flu or flu-like illnesses during the week ending Oct. 22, according to the most recent week for which numbers are available. That’s up from 5.9% from the previous week. There were 105 people in metro Atlanta hospitalized with influenza during the week ending Oct. 22, and so far this season two adults have died as a result of the flu in Georgia, according to DPH.

AJC data journalist Stephanie Lamm contributed to this article.

Flu by the numbers in Georgia

6% - estimated percentage of patient visits to doctors for flu or flu-like illnesses.

105 – number of people hospitalized for influenza in metro Atlanta

2 – number of people who have died in the state from the flu so far this season

Source: Georgia Department of Public Health and based on the most recent available surveillance for the week ending Oct. 22.