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While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that there is low flu activity in Michigan (as of early December), the state has a lofty goal of keeping it that way by vaccinating 4 million residents against the nose, throat and lung infection wreaking havoc around parts of the country facing an infection surge.
“I think one of the challenges for public health right now is that we have COVID fatigue and the preventive practices of washing your hands, wearing masks — people are tired from doing things to help prevent the spread of disease,” Dr. Eric Whitaker, a nationally recognized authority on public health and an expert in the health issues of African American communities, told the Michigan Chronicle.
The flu, coupled with COVID and respiratory syncytial (or RSV) is an ongoing epidemic now being called a “tripledemic,” which health officials are hoping to combat, according to reports.
“Unfortunately [with] the tripledemic they all are spread in similar ways through the respiratory tract,” Dr. Whitaker said, adding that some segments of the population need to take the health crisis “seriously” despite fatigue. “The fact that they are at risk is a challenge for public health. One of the things I’ve seen in my life in public health is that we are very crisis-oriented. We will develop policies and funding for the crisis of the day but once the challenge is deemed to be resolved it’s going back to business as usual and the COVID, RSV, and the flu, they’re not going anywhere. They are going to be with us for a long time. I would urge the use of masks indoors and hand washing and social distancing just as when we were in the throes of the epidemic.”
Whitaker also encourages people to get vaccinated, too.
Amid the tripledemic, Michigan Health & Hospital Association (MHA) reports that Michigan children’s hospitals and pediatric healthcare leaders are bringing raising awareness about a pediatric hospital bed shortage and asking the public to help prevent respiratory illnesses rapidly spreading in the form of RSV and the flu.
Michigan pediatric intensive care unit hospital beds are currently 89 percent occupied, according to data from MHA and the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services (MDHHS).
While flu rates are low, hospitals are still reporting significant increases in the number of young people seeking both urgent and non-urgent care in emergency rooms. Hospitals advise patients to stay at home if they have minor cold-like symptoms. The best place to receive care would be at an urgent care center or your primary care physician’s office if your symptoms get worse; visits to the emergency room should only be made if you have moderate to severe symptoms, such as shortness of breath. Emergency room wait times and patient loads are rising, and non-emergency medical visits are reducing the capacity of some emergency departments. Increases in hospital attendance are made more difficult by widespread personnel shortages.
“Hospitals are here for Michiganders, particularly in emergencies,” said Gary Roth, DO, chief medical officer, of MHA. “But our capacity to provide pediatric hospital care is extremely strained. Right now, the staffing challenges we have been sounding the alarms about all year combined with the rapid spread of respiratory illnesses are impacting our hospitals’ ability to care for our sickest children in a timely manner.”
The number of pediatric beds available in Michigan hospitals is being monitored by the MHA and the MDHHS. Seventy-six percent of pediatric beds nationwide, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, are occupied, with anecdotal accounts mostly attributing the scarcity to the widespread RSV infections.
“In recent weeks we have seen a significant surge in cases of RSV which is most greatly impacting our infants and young children,” said Rudolph Valentini, MD, chief medical officer of Children’s Hospital of Michigan. “Since Oct. 1, more than 450 patients have tested positive for RSV at our hospital. This is putting a strain on our hospital’s emergency department and inpatient bed capacity; further, this could intensify if influenza cases begin to rise in the near future.”
Healthcare professionals are urging people to stay home if they feel unwell and avoid large crowds when out, and wear masks.
The MHA and its pediatric clinical leaders and partners offer the following tips for the public:
- Don’t: Seek hospital emergency care for non-emergency medical conditions, such as mild symptoms and routine testing.
- Do: Seek hospital emergency care if symptoms are worrisome and emergency care is needed. Emergency medical conditions can include difficulty breathing, dehydration and worsening symptoms.
- Do: Immediately get vaccinated against respiratory illnesses. Visit www.vaccines.gov to search for vaccine availability or call your provider or the local health department.
- Do: Be patient if seeking care through a hospital emergency department. Consider that wait times may be elevated as respiratory illnesses reach seasonal peak levels.
- Do: Consider having your children wear a mask in public places including school when you know local case rates of respiratory illnesses are high.
- Do: Practice frequent and proper hand washing and stay home if you’re not feeling well.
Flu symptoms include a fever, cough, stuffy or runny nose, sore throat, headache, chills and fatigue. A flu test is not always needed to diagnose the flu, however, in some cases, it may be recommended by a healthcare provider. People at risk of complications should consult their healthcare provider.
RSV infection is a viral respiratory illness that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms. Most people recover in a week or two, but RSV can be serious, especially for infants and older adults. Symptoms include runny nose, decreased appetite, coughing, sneezing, fever and wheezing.
An estimated 58,000 children under five years old are hospitalized from RSV every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
COVID-19 symptoms can include fever or chills, respiratory symptoms (cough, sore throat, runny nose), a loss of taste and smell, fatigue, a sore throat, muscle or body aches and a headache.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told the Michigan Chronicle recently that keeping Michiganders healthy this year and into 2023 is a high priority for her administration.
“We continue to work closely with our hospitals and our medical leaders to support the incredible people who are worn out from being on the front line taking care of … COVID patients to flu [and RSV] patients,” Whitmer said. “It has just been a challenge after challenge and this is playing out all across the country, but here in Michigan, we are doing our part to make sure that people understand you can protect yourself from a lot of this. … Making sure that you’re up to date with the newest vaccines that that’s really important. People have tools to protect themselves – whether it’s … simply pulling out one of those old masks … it’s the best way to stay safe and being smart.”
Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist agrees, and added that a health equity component helped ensure BIPOC residents were kept aligned and well.
“Michigan was unique in the country in terms of responding to the pandemic and really centering on closing racial disparities in COVID-19 outcomes and we learned a lot during that process,” Gilchrist said of the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities, an advisory body within the Department of Health and Human Services established in 2020. “[The Task Force] informed our thinking and our implementation of health policies across the board. As we enter into this era with the challenges we’re facing today that’s helping us keep more people safe [who] otherwise may have been more vulnerable.”
What does Gilchrist see for Michigan regarding health as 2022 comes to an end? More momentum and even better health practices in prevention and cures.
“We’re going to build on that … all going forward,” Gilchrist said. “It’s going to inform how we do health policy here in Michigan.”