Connecticut is facing an earlier-than-usual flu season with a substantial swell in cases, about 6,000 so far and 102 hospital admissions, Public Health Commissioner Manisha Juthani said Monday, even as the state is dealing with a crush of respiratory syncytial virus cases among young children.
The first flu death of the season was reported Monday, a man in his 50s from New London.
“We have not had a flu season this early over the last four years,” she said. “And it is continuing to trend up. We can only expect that [cases] will get higher.”
At this point last year, the state had reported 51 flu cases and four hospitalizations. During the last winter before COVID swept through Connecticut and masking became more common — the 2019-2020 season – the state recorded 114 flu cases and 43 hospitalizations by this point, public health officials said.
Connecticut has already been weathering a flood of RSV cases among kids, and leaders at children’s hospitals worry the rising flu cases will make the crowded situation worse in intensive care units and emergency departments.
“For the last six weeks, we have been over capacity, which means we’ve had an average of 15 to 20 children who require admission … but they haven’t been able to be brought up to one of our inpatient beds,” Dr. Juan Salazar, physician-in-chief at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, told The CT Mirror this month. “So they’re remaining in our emergency department bays, awaiting a bed to open to be able to move them upstairs.”
Officials at Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital also expressed concern.
“Far and away, the biggest concern is that influenza is going to accelerate rapidly and RSV will not decrease as rapidly,” said Dr. Tom Murray, associate medical director for infection prevention. “The next few weeks, it’s very possible we will have a lot of RSV and a lot of flu, which will push our capacity. We’re having active surge meetings to try to decide how we’re going to handle it.”
The state is also bracing for an increase in COVID cases this winter.
“I am still of the belief that COVID will surge,” Juthani said Monday. “This is the first season we’ve had with all these viruses competing with each other. My guess is that we will still see a COVID peak, maybe in January or February.
“One of the things that’s challenging from a pediatric perspective is that we don’t have a very deep bench of providers … we may have people, for example, who are in the National Guard or other places who could be brought in for adult care. But unfortunately, a lot of the people who have that type of skill set are already working in our pediatric hospitals. So that is a little bit of a challenge.”
Unlike hospitals treating adults, where elective surgeries were postponed during the most hectic stretches of the pandemic, children’s hospitals have struggled to do the same.
“Most children who need surgery generally need the surgery — they won’t have an elective hip replacement or knee replacement or something that could be put off,” Juthani said.
Some adult hospitals have been able to place older children — 15-, 16- or 17-year-olds — in their beds when possible and appropriate, she said.
Salazar has cited three possible reasons for the increase in serious RSV cases this year. Isolation and precautions taken during the last two winters meant children weren’t exposed to the typical seasonal viruses (mask mandates in schools were dropped in March of this year) and lacked immunity. Pregnant people also were not exposed to as many viruses.
Many children have also been infected with COVID, he said, and even mild cases could reduce their ability to fight off other illnesses. And the RSV strain spreading this year may also be more transmissible and virulent than previous strains.
Last month, officials at Connecticut Children’s and the state had considered opening a field hospital — a tent outside the facility — with the help of the National Guard. But with the weather growing colder, physicians decided instead to expand capacity inside the hospital.
“Unfortunately that mechanism, which we did offer, is really not something that’s great for sustaining care over many, many months in the cold winter,” Juthani said. “It’s really intended for a disaster or maybe a week, two weeks at most.”
“We have worked with our hospitals, provided information about different contractors who can provide trailers and would like to be able to provide care in a more sustained way. I will be meeting with those hospitals again in the coming week or so to identify what their plans are.”
In the meantime, Juthani urged people to get their flu shots and COVID boosters. Parents should make sure their children are up to date on vaccinations, she said.
“One more plug for COVID and flu vaccines, which we know are our best shot at reducing severity of disease,” she said. “It may prevent disease, it may not be completely protective, but it will certainly … reduce the severity of the disease going forward.”