Hospitals deal with 'atypical' wave of respiratory illness

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

Flu hospitalizations doubled across the WellSpan hospital system in the last couple of weeks, according to Dr. Raghav Tirupathi, an infectious disease specialist.

"It's happening across the region, but it's atypical to see this early in the season," Tirupathi said. "Usually we see these kinds of spikes at the end of December, beginning of January."

According to state Department of Health data, flu cases locally reached levels not typically seen until around New Year's Eve, with the most recent weekly report showing 479 cases in York County and 12,065 statewide.

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In addition, WellSpan is seeing more people admitted for flu-like illnesses including influenza or COVID-19. York County itself added 440 new COVID-19 cases and seven more deaths in the week ending Wednesday, according to state data, bringing its pandemic totals to 139,833 and 1,611 respectively. Hospitalizations rose slightly to 28, with three in the ICU and one on a ventilator.

Nationwide, the country appears to be on the cusp of another COVID surge.

The omicron variant is driving U.S. COVID-19 case counts higher in many places just in time for the holiday season. The ever-morphing mutant began its assault on humanity a year ago, and experts expect another wave to wash over the U.S. soon. Cases nationally now average around 39,300 a day, though that's believed to be an undercount.

David Tran, an emergency department technician, left, prepares to put a cardiac monitor on a patient as he has his blood drawn by Jessica Smith, a registered nurse, at Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas on Nov. 11, 2022, in Encinitas, California. Scripps recently opened an overflow tent outside of the hospital after an increase of flu patients. (Ana Ramirez/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

Hospitalizations are at about 28,000 a day and deaths about 340 a day. Yet a fifth of the population hasn’t been vaccinated. Most eligible Americans haven’t gotten the latest boosters. And many have stopped wearing masks. Meanwhile, the mutating virus keeps finding ways to avoid defeat.

Luckily, Tirupathi said that respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) appears to be on a bit of a downswing as compared to the past few weeks.

So why are flu cases at a higher stage than normal for this time of year? Tirupathi said that's a complicated question with a variety of factors.

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"Probably one of the big reasons is that folks have not been exposed to these viruses over the past two to three years because of the predominance of COVID and that displacing other viruses," Tirupathi said. "And now with more reopening measures and people giving up the masking protocols as well as more gathering indoors, those have all precipitated it."

If someone has not encountered a certain virus for a while, that virus may have undergone antigenic drift, which is when a virus has small changes on its surface proteins. That could lead to increased rate of infection; according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, many flu shots are intended to target those small changes.

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At his final COVID media briefing earlier Thanksgiving week, White House adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said he never expected COVID-19 to kill 1 million Americans. The virus has killed almost 1.08 million people in this country, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Fauci encouraged people who had not gotten a COVID vaccine or booster to do so.

“As a physician, it pains me because I don’t want to see anybody get infected, I don’t want to see anybody hospitalized and I don’t want to see anybody die from COVID," Fauci told CNBC.

Tirupathi also encouraged York County residents to get their vaccine and booster as well as a flu shot. He also suggested other mitigation measures like wearing masks while indoors and eating outside if the weather permits.

"What works for one virus," he said, "would many times work for the other."

— Reach Matt Enright via email at menright@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @Matthew_Enright.