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Utah’s RSV surge prompts worry of a ‘tripledemic’ this winter

AP - RSV virus, Respiratory Syncytial Virus, 1981
AP, file
/
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
FILE - This 1981 photo provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows an electron micrograph of Respiratory Syncytial Virus, also known as RSV.

COVID-19, respiratory syncytial virus and the flu are all spiking as Utahns huddle indoors during the cold winter months.

RSV most commonly affects children under 2 years old and people over the age of 75 and can cause cold-like symptoms like cough and fever. The virus has hit Utah particularly hard this year.

Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital announced on Nov. 28 that it will delay some pre-scheduled and non-emergency surgeries and procedures due to the RSV surge.

“We’re contacting patient families to reschedule some surgeries and procedures,” said hospital administrator Dustin Lipson. “To be clear, patients who urgently need surgeries and procedures will receive them, as is always the case.”

Intermountain expects to postpone around 50 surgeries and procedures this week, about 10% of all surgeries and procedures at the hospital.

Courtney Christenson’s 2-year-old son went to the hospital earlier in November and is still dealing with symptoms weeks after his diagnosis.

“My son was the 31st positive RSV case that they had that day, just at the ER,” she said. “And just seeing how hard it was on him and still is on him, it's very scary … He still has a terrible cough that we still can't get rid of. We've done everything and he just coughs all day.”

Doctors say the RSV surge is not at its peak yet, and there is no vaccine against it.

“Here at Primary Children's, we are operating well above our normal capacity, using all of our tricks to increase capacity,” said Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at University of Utah Health and the director of Hospital Epidemiology at Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital.

“We create more beds essentially by putting two children in a room meant for one, by using spaces that are safe to use but aren't meant to be patient rooms. So we keep doing that and are able to sort of just barely meet all of the needs.”

Although cases continue to rise across Utah, Pavia expects RSV to follow a predictable trajectory over the next few weeks.

“RSV generally follows a pattern of steep up and steep down,” he said. “So I think in the next one to three weeks RSV will peak. I'm hoping it's sooner and then it'll start to decline fairly quickly. That's a reasonable prediction to make for RSV.”

But two other diseases also rising this winter — COVID-19 and the flu — are harder to predict. Pavia calls the prospect of all three spiking at once a “tripledemic.”

“What's really changed in the last week has been flu, which was increasing, and has now become dramatically more increased,” said Pavia. “Flu can do whatever it wants to … Flu will do what flu will do and it might last well into the late winter.”

When it comes to COVID, Pavia said while cases have increased, the silver lining is that hospitalizations are still relatively modest. According to the most recent statewide data, new hospital admissions have increased by 1.3% over the past seven days.

“All of the current indicators would suggest that we’re not likely to have a huge [COVID] surge unless a delta or an omicron-like event happens and then all bets are off.”

Practical steps like getting vaccinated, avoiding gatherings if you feel sick and masking can all help reduce the spread of disease.

“We're not talking about lockdowns,” said Pavia. “We're not talking about things that ruin your life. They're common sense, they're helpful and they can reduce the risk — not eliminate it, but reduce the risk. So take action. Don't be passive.”

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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