Respiratory viruses are making many Kentuckians sick and causing schools to close for a few days; will there be a ‘tridemic’?

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

Lots of people are sick and schools are closing these days as cold and flu season has hit Kentucky early, and nearly 750 Kentuckians a day were diagnosed with the flu last week — and that does not include home tests.

“Let me just start by saying right now from a health perspective, we’re dealing with a lot more than Covid,” Gov. Andy Beshear said Thursday at his weekly news conference. “But right now flu, RSV and other illnesses are really hitting our population, especially our children. The report I got earlier this week is that almost every pediatric bed at our three hospitals that have pediatric beds, nearly all of them were full and pediatric ICU beds were completely full.”

RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, is a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms. And while most people recover in a week or two, it can be serious for infants and older adults. A spokesperson for UK HealthCare said that on Nov. 3, its hospitals had 31 pediatric patients with RSV. Beshear urged Kentuckians to get their annual flu vaccination and the updated Covid-19 booster, and to stay home if they are sick.

In just three weeks time, Kentucky’s flu activity went from sporadic during the week ending Oct. 8 to widespread during the week ending Oct. 22, according to the state Department for Public Health‘s weekly flu surveillance reports. Flu activity in Kentucky remains widespread in the latest report. The health department considers Kentucky’s flu level “widespread” when increases in cases are seen in more than half of the state’s 16 health regions; that was the case with 16 regions in the latest reporting week.This surge in flu cases across the state has been so bad that it’s shutting some of Kentucky’s schools down for a few days.

On Friday, Nov, 4, the Kentucky School Boards Association said that at least 19 of the state’s 171 school districts have announced closures due to illness. The districts include Ballard, McCracken, Crittenden, Owen, Scott, Bourbon, Clark, Madison, Powell, Wolfe, Magoffin, Wayne, Fleming and Carter counties, and the Berea, Jackson, Paris, Raceland and Williamstown independent districts.

Sunday, Nov. 6, Fayette County was added to the list for Monday “due to widespread illness among students and staff,” the Lexington Herald-Leader reports.

Kent Koster, director for the Purchase District Health Department, which includes McCracken and Ballard counties, told Jennifer Brown of Hoptown Chronicle that the flu and RSV are affecting school districts the most.  Koster said the common flu is expected to increase in the coming weeks and that it’s possible people’s immune systems have weakened after multiple winters of wearing masks during the Covid-19 pandemic. “Since Covid cases have gone down and we are no longer required to wear masks, we can only expect flu cases to go up,” Koster told Brown.

Jackson Independent Schools Supt. Wayne Sizemore told Grason Passmore of WKYT that students were coming to school with temperatures of 101 and higher and being sent home. “Anytime we’re below 80 percent, it’s a cause for alarm. We want to make sure we’re looking at the safety of our staff, our students and the safety of our community, as well,” Sizemore said.

The latest flu report for the week ended Oct. 29 showed that Kentucky had 868 new confirmed cases of flu, up from 286 the week prior. The state has recorded 1,260 cases this season and one flu-related death, which was reported as a flu and Covid-19 co-infection.

One reason “everyone you know is sick right now” is because people have moved away from wearing masks and other precautions to avoid Covid-19 — efforts that also slowed the spread of flu and RSV, Dylan Scott reports for Vox. Also, people have returned to their pre-pandemic activities, which increases exposure, and because people have largely avoided the flu and RSV for two years, immunity to the viruses has waned.

Some infectious-disease experts have called the conflation of flu, RSV and Covid-19 that is poised to threaten hospital capacity in some states the “tri-demic.” Scott reports that experts are calling for a winter Covid-19 surge based on the pattern of the past two years.

“We used to worry about a twin-demic. Now some people are worried about a tri-demic: influenza, Covid, and RSV,” William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University professor and medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, told Scott. “Although we worried about this in the past few seasons, people are really anticipating this may be the one where these viruses really gang up on us and together may strain the health care system.” Experts also told Scott that the hope is that this will not be the new normal because people will get sick and develop immunity to the viruses again, anticipating that this increase in virus infections will last about two years.

Meanwhile, we already have vaccines for flu and Covid-19 and a new RSV vaccine could be on the horizon. In addition, old-fashioned public health measures like keeping your hands washed, wearing masks, covering coughs and sneezes and staying home when you are sick also work to slow the spread of disease

Districts that have closed due to illness
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