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COVID, flu, RSV on the rise in California. Is another 'tripledemic' coming?

Rong-Gong Lin II, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

Respiratory virus season is ramping up in California, prompting health officials to renew their calls for residents to get vaccinated in hopes of reducing potential pressure on health systems across the state.

While conditions so far are nowhere near as daunting as last autumn — when hospitals labored under the strain of a "tripledemic" spawned by wide simultaneous circulation of COVID-19, flu and respiratory syncytial virus — the transmittable trio is on the rise.

Data show new COVID and flu hospital admissions are increasing in California, and Fresno County was forced to take steps last month to stem a tide of patients arriving in its emergency rooms, instructing ambulances to not transport patients to hospitals if they are stable and not suffering from an emergency.

Nationally, "RSV season is in full swing. The flu season is just beginning across most of the country, though accelerating fast. And while we're seeing relatively low levels of COVID, COVID is still the primary cause of new respiratory hospitalizations and deaths, with about 15,000 hospitalizations and about 1,000 deaths every single week," Dr. Mandy Cohen, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told a House of Representatives subcommittee last week.

Of the three viruses, RSV is the most concerning in California in terms of community transmission, said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious diseases expert at UC San Francisco. In Los Angeles County, for data released on Thursday, 13% of specimens tested for RSV came back positive, up from 9% two weeks prior.

"It is pretty high [and] hasn't started to go down yet," Chin-Hong said.


But despite recent increases, health officials say they have yet to see the sort of widespread issues that made the previous respiratory virus season so challenging. Last year at this time, children's hospitals across California were under stress, with exceptionally high hospitalization rates related to RSV — including in Orange County, which declared a health emergency related to the virus.

"The interesting thing with RSV is that the levels of hospitalization isn't the same crisis levels in pediatric hospitals as one year ago, when it peaked in November," Chin-Hong said.

One possible reason is that since RSV was pretty severe last autumn, there might be some carryover immunity. Chin-Hong said that UC San Francisco's pediatric hospitals are now about 90% full — "average for this time of year" — as opposed to being beyond capacity last year.

The availability of RSV vaccines for babies and young children, the elderly and those who are pregnant may also be helping, he added.


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