ATLANTA, GA – January 10, 2024 – Many hospitals in North Carolina and the U.S. have begun to require masks because of the surge in the number of people having respiratory viral infections, visiting emergency rooms, and being admitted to the hospital. Many hospitals in 7 states including North Carolina have begun mask mandates for staff, patients and visitors and have reinstituted visitor restrictions. Visitors at Duke Hospital are encouraged to wear masks while seeing patients. Cape Fear Valley Health hospitals are requiring masks. Duke Health, UNC Health and WakeMed restrict young visitors from inpatient areas. Cases of the flu, in particular, and COVID-19 have been rising since Thanksgiving and are predicted to continue to grow during the remaining cold winter months. Hospitals are full of vulnerable patients with underlying health problems and staff that are at risk of getting severely ill with respiratory illness so these groups need to be protected from the high prevalence of respiratory viruses in the community.
According to the CDC, 31 states and Washington, DC, are at a high or very high level of respiratory illness activity. During the week ending on December 23rd, hospital admissions have totaled more than 29 thousand patients with COVID-19, about 15 thousand with the flu, and thousands with RSV according to the CDC. The flu activity is rising. There are about 6500 deaths so far this season. Young children and older adults are more susceptible to get severely ill with RSV.
This is the time of year that respiratory illnesses like the flu, RSV and COVID-19 can affect us. People are indoors more because it is cold outside. Holiday travel and gatherings brought us together and created an opportunity for viruses to spread. The COVID pandemic has taught us how susceptible we are to respiratory viral illness and that preventive measures can reduce its spread and severity like wearing a face mask and getting vaccinated. The current flu vaccine matches up well with this year’s flu strain, further reducing the risk for vaccinated people to develop severe illness. Although, the number of cases is not overwhelming and not as severe as previous years, Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert from Vanderbilt University, feels that this season is ”moderately severe.”
The CDC has created a website (at cdc.gov/respiratory-viruses/index.html) with a county-by-county breakdown of the level of respiratory illness activity. This can be a guide in choosing the level of protection to reduce the risk of getting sick. North Carolina has very high respiratory illness activity based on healthcare visits for fever, cough or sore throat. The flu is increasing in Buncombe County based on emergency department visits. RSV and COVID-19 activity have been unchanged. The CDC urges eligible people to get vaccinated and to seek treatment if they test positive.
Low vaccination rates may contribute to the increase in cases in addition to cold weather and holiday gatherings. According to the latest CDC survey data, as of December 23rd:
- About 44% of U.S. adults have gotten their annual fall flu shot
- About 19% of U.S. adults have received the updated fall COVID-19 shot
- About 17% of U.S. adults 60 years and older have been vaccinated against RSV
According to Dr. John Brownstein, an epidemiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, “While there’s nothing unusual about what we’re seeing, the data still reflects an increase in illness and, as we know, masking will be helpful, regardless of the respiratory pathogen: RSV, COVID, flu, and the other respiratory pathogens that are circulating. So, it’s sort of a one size fits all strategy.”
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Contact: Dr. Dick Needleman, Health reporter, 103.3 AshevilleFM, email@example.com