What’s worse than a contagious respiratory virus plaguing the population? How about three at once? Over the past few months, there has been a surge—unlike any other —of RSV, influenza, and COVID cases, a situation now referred to as the “tripledemic.”
Compared to the peak in 2021, RSV cases in 2022 are 60 percent higher, and flu hospitalizations are the highest they have been in the past 10 years. On top of that, COVID is still a concern. Although the number of COVID cases has fortunately subsided substantially in the past year, we are seeing an increased number of cases nationwide at the present time, as seen in the CDC reports.
Why is this happening, and what can be done? Here is the explanation behind the tripledemic, the impact it has on hospitals and antimicrobial resistance (AMR), and what can be done to address the situation.
Why Is There a Tripledemic?
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, mask mandates, social-distancing requirements, and other restrictions were effective not only at slowing the spread of COVID-19 but also against other respiratory viruses. As a result, there were fewer cases of RSV and influenza.
Christopher Gill, MD, a global health professor at Boston University and an infectious disease specialist, explains that, while this decline in cases was good, it came with a catch: “The population was not acquiring as much herd immunity to those other viruses,” he says. “At the same time, infants were still being born and adding to the population of susceptible individuals. The result was a bit like winding a clock spring too tightly, because now the rebound has been much more severe than in typical years. . . . particularly for diseases that mainly affect young infants, such as RSV.”
According to Gill, it is likely that we are now experiencing a rebound from the period of time when people, especially infants, were less exposed to the viruses. Read Gill’s full interview with the BU School of Public Health here.
What Impact Is the Tripledemic Having?
This soaring number of viral cases has overwhelmed hospitals, alongside country-wide staffing shortages still affecting the healthcare industry. In the last two and a half years, the nation’s healthcare industry has been experiencing difficult staffing shortages, especially for nurses. Burnout due to the overwhelming number of hospitalized COVID cases has caused many nurses and other caregivers to stop working in hospitals and ERs. Between that and the lack of new nurses coming out of too few nursing schools, the shortage will only get continually worse for many years to come.
Exacerbating the problem of dealing with three simultaneous viral outbreaks is a shortage of common antibiotics, such as amoxicillin. While some of the demand for antibiotics is justified, healthcare practitioners still tend to over-prescribe antibiotics for viral infections, a persistent and ongoing problem leading to antimicrobial resistance (AMR)—when antibiotics become ineffective in treating infections. AMR, along with a shortage of antibiotics, is a worrisome combination that needs to be addressed urgently.
An underlying—and often overlooked—problem in the overprescribing of antibiotics lies in the diagnosis of infections. Given the current state of laboratory testing, there is a high rate of “false negatives” as well as delays in testing results.
What Can Be Done?
Most people in the US have stopped wearing masks and have resumed regular social activity—even when sick—which is exacerbating the problem. The first solution is for the public to continue taking reasonable precautions when sick or exposed to someone with a virus, including washing hands regularly, wearing a mask when in a closed space with limited air circulation, and staying home when sick.
In addition, tracking data and monitoring viruses is another crucial preventative measure. Systems that track epidemiological data can serve as an early warning system to track and address viral outbreaks before they get out of hand.
Finally, to effectively mitigate AMR, it’s critical to use precision diagnostic tools to ensure infections are being diagnosed properly and being treated with the appropriate antibiotics. Most are not commonly available yet. However, the promise of revolutionary faster diagnosis coupled with significant reduction of false positives using next-generation sequencing (NGS) is just beginning and shows promise for much more effectively dealing with the spread of viruses.
Clinicians, hospital CEOs, pulmonologists, urologists, anesthesiologists—we need your help! Biotia is working with the state, the Rockefeller Foundation, labs, and other organizations to develop precision diagnostics that will combat these issues, but increased support and funding are needed to bring the new technology to the forefront. What do you need to get your organization on board and involved? We would like to hear from you so we can begin working together and beating the spread of viruses and infections in our communities.
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