As flu and other seasonal viruses continue spreading rapidly across the state, COVID-19 cases are climbing again, possibly putting Georgia on the verge of yet another winter surge of the deadly pandemic virus. The collision of RSV, flu and COVID viruses — dubbed a “tripledemic” — could overwhelm hospitals already stretched thin.
“We are used to being busy in the wintertime,” said Dr. Hugo Scornik, a local pediatrician and former president of the Georgia chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “We always say pediatrics is a winter sport because we are used to seeing flu cases in the winter.
“But this year has been exceptional for a number of reasons. First, the flu came early… In addition, viruses we are seeing seem to be tougher on the kids. And we hypothesize that’s because children have relatively not been exposed to these viruses over the past two years because everyone has been separate and masking due to COVID concerns.”
Health officials are worried about what lies ahead because of low uptake of both flu and COVID booster vaccines by children and adults.
In Georgia, only 20% of people who are age-eligible for flu vaccine have been immunized so far this season, according to data from the state Department of Public Health obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. And only 6.8% of people in Georgia who are age-eligible for an updated bivalent COVID booster have received one, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A flu vaccine can prevent infection, and among those who still become sick with flu, vaccination can reduce the severity of the illness. The same is true for COVID vaccines and boosters which can help protect against severe outcomes like hospitalization and death.
The current situation is dire. Many hospitals in Georgia are running out of beds and are on diversion, meaning they’re requesting ambulances to transport patients to other hospitals. But it can be hard to find a nearby hospital with space.
And that’s leaving some very sick people waiting for several hours in emergency rooms for hospital beds to open up. In Georgia, 84% of pediatric ICU beds are occupied, according to the most recent federal data. Adult ICU beds are even more full at 84.5%.
At Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, flu is the big driver of hospitalizations, followed by rhinovirus, enterovirus and RSV. For healthy adults, rhinovirus and enteroviruses are among the causes of the common cold but for children, they can be severe. Symptoms of RSV 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 and older adults, leading to breathing trouble and complications such as pneumonia.
Dr. Andi Shane, division chief for pediatric infectious disease at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Emory University, said the system’s hospital units for such respiratory support as a ventilator, occupancy is between 90% and 100%.