Flu patients hit record hospitalizations in North Carolina, other viruses on the rise too

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Wednesday, January 3, 2024
NCDHHS reports increase in hospitalizations from respiratory viruses
New metrics from NCDHHS shows worsening metrics for respiratory viruses, as health officials with the agency urge people to protect themselves.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- New metrics from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) shows worsening metrics for respiratory viruses, as health officials with the agency urge people to protect themselves.

"We are approaching the peak of winter respiratory virus season and encourage people to get tested early and seek treatment as soon as they begin to develop symptoms," said Dr. Elizabeth Cuervo-Tilson, State Health Director and Chief Medical Officer for NCDHHS in a press release. "Don't wait to seek treatment if you test positive for the flu or COVID-19, as treatments can help prevent severe illness, especially for those who are high risk of serious complications based on their age or medical conditions."

For the seven-day period ending December 20th, COVID-19 wastewater particles reached its highest level since January 2023. The latest numbers also represent the fifth straight week of increases. The 44.3 million COVID-19 virus particles per person were also more than twice as high as late November.

For the week ending December 30th, there were 923 people hospitalized with COVID, a 30% jump in just seven days. However, that's actually down significantly from the 1,580 COVID hospitalizations during this same stretch in 2022.

"It has been quite a busy season," said Dr. Dan Park, who is the Medical Director of Pediatric Emergency Department at UNC Medical Center.

Park explained cases of RSV and flu remain high, with the latter figure notably elevated in state figures. According to NCDHHS, for the week ending December 30th, there are 1,055 people hospitalized with flu. Comparatively, during the same time period last year, there were just over 300 people hospitalized with flu.

"I equate the pediatric emergency department like the canary in the coal mine for us in terms of the hospital and hospital capacity. When our volumes go up, you know the hospitals get full," said Dr. Park.

The CDC is offering recommendations for the RSV vaccine, stating there are two vaccines that have been licensed by the FDA and recommended by the CDC for people ages 60 and older, one vaccine during weeks 32 to 36 for pregnancy, and a RSV preventative antibody for infants and some young children.

"Anecdotally what we're seeing this season, (for) the really young obviously RSV can be quite harsh. Hopefully as the new vaccine is rolled out this season and next season, that will kind of blunt some of the severity of that illness in young children and maybe even for the elderly. But the thing that's been notable that we've been seeing is the elderly coming down with severe RSV which is not something that we're kind of accustomed to," Park explained.

Health systems have started altering their procedures in response to the uptick, with Duke, UNC Health, and WakeMed all restricting young visitors from inpatient areas. At Cape Fear Valley Health, patients and visitors are required to wear masks.

Elsewhere, people are opting to take their own measures to protect themselves.

"I try to take those things into account, but not let them prohibit me from living life. I do a lot of preventative care...lots of good rest, lots of good self-care," Raleigh resident Lucy Byrd Hope said.

UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill saw weekly increases in COVID and RSV patients, but a slight dip in flu, while WakeMed saw a bump in COVID, but decreases in both COVID and RSV. Duke Health reported total testing numbers for RSV, COVID, and the flu were down across the board, which is to be expected considering the holiday period.

NCDHHS urged people experiencing mild symptoms to seek medical attention, while highlighting the availability of flu and COVID vaccines.

"I don't think it's ever too late (to get vaccinated). I would say go and get it, especially the flu shot, because it's been such a severe season and the numbers are quite high. So I would say if you're on the fence, go for it," said Dr. Park.