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Wisconsin issues health alert as flu and RSV cases increase, hospitalize children

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Nurse Megan Mandt

Nurse Megan Mandt works in UnityPoint Health-Meriter's intermediate care unit for COVID-19 patients in December 2020.

Unusually early increases in flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, are triggering many hospitalizations, especially among children, Wisconsin health officials said Wednesday in issuing an alert about the situation.

“Wisconsin hospitals are already seeing an alarming number of hospitalizations due to respiratory illnesses,” Karen Timberlake, secretary of the state Department of Health Services, said in a statement. “It is essential for Wisconsinites to get their updated COVID-19 booster and annual flu vaccine to protect their health, especially with the holiday season right around the corner.”

RSV cases started spiking last month, well before the typical rise in December, with levels now at what is normally seen in late January or early February, said Tom Haupt, respiratory disease epidemiologist at DHS. Numerous young children are in pediatric or neonatal intensive care units with RSV, he said.

Flu activity has doubled in the past two weeks, with high levels in northeast Wisconsin and moderate levels in the southern and western parts of the state, according to a report this week. COVID-19 is still spreading, with 458 patients hospitalized with the coronavirus around the state as of Monday, the Wisconsin Hospital Association said.

“This is the first year that three severe respiratory viruses are circulating simultaneously with significant increases in cases being reported,” said the alert to health care providers.

“The hospitals are becoming overwhelmed,” Haupt said. “They are having to turn away transfers that they normally would take from other hospitals” and are sometimes limiting elective surgeries, he said.

UW Health said this week its emergency rooms and urgent care centers are “very busy,” following record numbers of urgent care visits in September and October. UW’s emergency department saw 350 patients one day this month, a record, with high volumes largely driven by children with respiratory illness, spokesperson Emily Kumlien said.

The organization urged patients with common colds to manage symptoms at home and parents who suspect RSV in children to call their pediatrician’s office to find out the best way to seek care.

DHS said that with the viruses at high levels nationwide, the respiratory infection season in Wisconsin this fall and winter has the potential to be severe, especially for young children and older adults.

The department urged Wisconsinites 6 months and older to get COVID-19 and flu vaccines, which can be given at the same time. There is no vaccine for RSV, though some candidates may soon be considered for approval.

Officials said everyone 5 years and older should get an updated COVID-19 booster when eligible, especially older people, young children, pregnant people and those with chronic health conditions. The shots are partly targeted at omicron variants, which are circulating most widely.

However, only 12.3% of residents had received an updated COVID-19 booster as of last week. In Dane County, the figure was 22.5%.

As of last week, 23% of state residents had received an annual flu shot this year, slightly lower than at the same point last year. In Dane County, it was 36.2%.

To prevent further spread of respiratory viruses during upcoming holidays, officials said people should frequently wash their hands and, if they are sick, stay home and talk to their doctor about getting tested for COVID-19, flu, RSV or other respiratory viruses.

Wisconsinites can still order free COVID-19 rapid tests and access testing at many community sites.

As of last week, COVID community levels were high in three counties in northwest Wisconsin, meaning face masks are recommended in public places: Barron, Rusk and Sawyer. Dane County and most surrounding counties were at low levels, though Green, Lafayette and Rock counties were at moderate levels.

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