Why flu season is hitting earlier and harder in Virginia: 'We are concerned'

Posted at 4:18 PM, Nov 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-21 18:24:02-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- Hospitals, pediatric care units, and doctors' offices are slammed with patients as the Commonwealth continues to see a rise in influenza and RSV cases, the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) said on Monday.

VDH reported the number of emergency department and urgent care clinic visits involving patients diagnosed with RSV has quadrupled since early September and "remains significantly elevated."

Visits for flu-like illness were reported to be at least four times higher than in the same week for each of the past four years for the week ending November 5, the department added.

Lisa Sollot, a respiratory illness expert with VDH, said the global COVID-19 pandemic may be a contributing factor to the early start to flu season and the rising rates of RSV.

Young children may have bypassed natural exposure to respiratory illnesses in congregate settings like daycare due to pandemic-induced closures. That means this season may be the first they've been exposed to influenza or RSV.

"COVID-19 is a respiratory virus and has changed how influenza and RSV and other respiratory viruses are expected to circulate," Sollot said.

As of right now, the Commonwealth is listed as having very high influenza-like activity.

So far, Virginia has seen 72 different outbreaks this season.

Sollot said this flu season's start is the earliest recorded in the past decade.

"Not having seen numbers like this since before the pandemic, and even a couple years prior, we are concerned," Sollot said.

According to VDH, 23% of flu-related doctor's visits are among children ages 0-4 years old. The department also reported that the number of children younger than 12 years old vaccinated for the flu is lower than it has been in the past three years.

Influenza, RSV, and COVID-19 are now putting a strain on hospitals and clinics.

"The number of beds available is fewer than it was prior to the start of this surge because there are more patients filling them up and occupying those beds," Julian Walker, a spokesperson with the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association, said.

"Doctors' offices, family physicians, pediatricians, urgent care centers, you know, they're booked up and scheduled with appointments as well. I would say it's an increase in demand because you're seeing an increase in cases, particularly among younger patients," Walker said.

Sollot said she and other epidemiologists do not expect a slowdown soon, given that students and families will be traveling for the holidays.

"It is concerning that we're seeing these numbers heading into the holidays, knowing that increased spread is probably inevitable," Sollot said.

Sollot and Walker said getting caught up on your influenza and COVID-19 shots, as well as practicing good hygiene and staying home should you feel sick, can keep families healthy this holiday season.

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