As COVID-19 hospitalizations increase, doctors brace for flu season

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- As hospital staffers continue to deal with an influx of patients, they are preparing for flu season.

"Things seem to have lost their seasonality in the last year. So we're already seeing a little bit of flu. It's too early. We've seen RSV in our pediatric population. Way too early," said Dr. Lisa Pickett, the Chief Medical Officer at Duke University Hospital. "So, we've seen to have lost that cyclical rhythm that we could anticipate and plan on, so it's going to be really difficult to predict throughout the year."

It also comes amidst a surge of COVID-19 cases stemming from the more transmissible Delta variant.

"Our numbers across the health system have gone up pretty significantly over the past two weeks," Pickett said.

Statewide, the number of COVID-19 ICU patients has more than doubled in the last month, and doctors are concerned there could be a surge in new cases stemming from the holiday weekend.

"That is sadly what we expect. We're planning for it, we're hoping that it doesn't happen. But given what we've seen in terms of activity within our communities, I think we expect that this ongoing rise in cases continues," Pickett said.

Last flu season saw a major decrease in flu activity, likely tied to preventative measures put in place due to the pandemic, including masking, social distancing, and strict capacity limits. This year, most of those restrictions have been lifted, and students have returned to classrooms, travel has picked up, and stadiums are filling up. Health officials are not anticipating such a steep drop this season.

"That is something that we should be worried about. Already our hospital capacity is stretched pretty thin with COVID, and if we put the flu on top of it, we can have a lot of trouble with our hospital capacity," said Dr. Betsey Tilson, Chief Medical Officer for NCDHHS.

It all comes as health systems face staffing challenges; in August, UNC Health shared they had more traveling nurses than ever, with a spokesperson telling ABC 11 they've reduced non-emergency procedures to try and free up beds.

"We're short-staffed, as we know there's a nursing shortage across the country. It's not unique to Duke or our health system. And certainly there are defined number of staffed beds. When we get to that number, it's very hard to provide really high-level support to more patients," said Dr. Pickett.

Doctors encourage people get both their COVID-19 and flu vaccinations, adding they understand the value of social interactions. With that in mind, they preach caution while partaking in those gatherings and activities, especially if you are at high risk of severe illness.
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