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Doctors concerned as flu season starts with rise in other respiratory illnesses

Posted at 6:03 PM, Oct 05, 2021

BALTIMORE — Flu season is just beginning and doctors are worried because hospital systems are already overwhelmed, not just with COVID-19, but other respiratory illnesses too.

“We’re been exceedingly busy. Probably the highest volumes Maryland ED’s have seen in the last couple of years,” said Dr. Jeffrey Sternlicht, chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at GBMC. “I’m concerned what could happen come November, December, January if these viruses continue to spread and people don’t get vaccinated for COVID and people don’t get vaccinated for the flu.”

Dr. Sternlicht said usually they see a lull in respiratory viruses over the summer but it didn’t happen this year.

“We’re seeing RSV, particularly in children but in adults as well. We’re seeing rhinoviruses, adenoviruses, bacterial pneumonia,” said Dr. Sternlicht.

While these viruses aren’t often deadly, they can be concerning.

“Generally people are gonna be okay. Most of these viruses are a common cold or a low grade fever. But there are people at risk of serious disease from these,” said Dr. Sternlicht.

The University of Maryland Children’s Hospital saw an early surge in RSV in the middle of the summer that has continued. Pediatric ICU director Dr. Jason Custer said this is because last year’s flu season was so uncharacteristically mild.

“We didn’t see RSV. We didn’t see much influenza. And so what that creates is, in this patient population, they don’t have any native immunity. They have never seen these viruses before. This season will be the first time many of our children have seen some of these respiratory viruses,” said Dr. Custer. “It [RSV] started in the community early and it moved through the community quickly because there wasn’t a good native immunity.”

Doctors predict this flu season, which just started last week, will be more difficult than years past.

“The reason being is now people have let their guard down. Schools are back in session and people are out and about doing things,” said Dr. Sternlicht.

Both doctors recommend the mitigation measures that proved to work well last year.

That includes wearing a mask indoors.

“100% masks work. They kept us safe. We took care of some of the sickest COVID patients throughout the early and middle part of the pandemic. None of us had the vaccination yet and masks prevented illnesses and the vast majority of us,” said Dr. Sternlicht.

They also want everyone over 6 months old to get vaccinated against the flu. But that’s not all that will help limit exposure.

“It is limiting indoor gatherings. It is staying home when you are sick and keeping your children out of schools and gatherings if they are showing symptoms of these respiratory viral illnesses and hand hygiene,” said Dr. Custer.

Maryland’s first flu report for this season will be released Saturday, based on data from this week.