FREEHOLD — Across New Jersey, a triple threat is filling emergency rooms. Three serious respiratory infections — the flu, COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus, better known as RSV — are straining health care systems as they spread across New Jersey, doctors said.
“The demand (for care and treatment) that this trifecta requires has definitely left us … in shock and stress,” said Dr. Sanjay Mehta, who oversees pediatric emergency care at CentraState Health System in Freehold.
For the first time in Mehta’s memory — he has worked at the hospital for 15 years — other pediatric hospitals across the state have refused to accept transfers of small patients because of a lack of beds, the doctor said.
This season, “the number of kids getting sick was a lot higher (than usual),” he said.
RSV is responsible for many cases of childhood illness in New Jersey, Mehta said. While most healthy adults and older children with RSV have mild symptoms, the virus can be serious for infants, young children, the elderly, and people with chronic medical conditions, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In severe cases, the infection can cause inflammation of the lungs, pneumonia, or death.
RSV kills about 100 to 300 young children in the United States each year and another 6,000 to 10,000 older adults, according to the CDC.
Like Mehta, Dr. Harpreet Pell is seeing a similar influx of children with RSV at Hackensack Meridian K. Hovnanian Children’s Hospital in Neptune.
“This is definitely a challenging time in pediatric health care across the country,” he said.
COVID-19 lockdowns, masks and social distancing have helped keep young children away from RSV for the past two years, but that has changed as life has returned to normal for most people, Paul said.
“Children who had no immunity to RSV or had never been exposed to it in the past were suddenly all exposed at the same time,” he said. “This is what has led to a very large spike in cases of children with RSV.”
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RSV cases have started to the surge in New Jersey around the beginning of September, around the same time schools reopened for students, according to the CDC. By mid-October, New Jersey was reporting more than 6,000 cases of RSV each week, according to the state health department. The number of cases peaked in early to mid-November at about 9,000 cases and now appears to be declining, according to data of the state.
“I was concerned about RSV a month ago, and I’ve seen other hospitals and other states with stories of … not enough space (for patients),” said Dr. Edward Liu, chief of infectious diseases at Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune. . .
While the number of patients at the hospital has increased due to RSV, Liu said the workload for staff has been manageable.
While RSV cases appear to be on the decline, another virus is gaining momentum. According to the state health department, flu cases have already reached “high” levels across the state, which is still weeks before the normal peak of the virus.
Liu said the impact of Thanksgiving gatherings is being felt in emergency rooms, with a marked increase in cases of COVID-19 and the flu.
“We’re seeing a lot of elderly people, but also people who haven’t been boosted (with the new bivalent COVID-19 vaccine),” Liu said. “I think people don’t disguise themselves regularly anymore. And I think a lot of people are tired of vaccines and haven’t gotten a flu shot.”
According to information, during the 2021-2022 flu season. only 57% of adults and nearly 68% of children and teens in New Jersey have received flu vaccines health department.
Since the beginning of October, New Jersey health care providers have reported more than 44,000 cases of the flu to the state health department, compared to just 1,768 cases during the same period in 2021.
“Flu shots have been around for decades, and they’re available, and you should get them,” Liu said.
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At the state health department, Dr. Edward Lifshitz, director of the infectious disease program, has watched the number of viruses rise and fall. He saw RSV rates begin to decline as emergency rooms began to fill up again with flu patients.
Despite all of this, Lifschiffs said that COVID-19 remains active “in the background.”
“We’re not seeing people getting sick, we’re seeing more people getting sick,” Lifshitz said. “Hospitals are seeing an increase in cases compared to most years. So any individual who gets sick, it’s unfortunate, but it doesn’t look like it’s any worse than usual. But all these people are filling up the hospitals.”
COVID-19 infection rates remain low compared to the peak in early January of more than 33,000 cases daily; as of Thursday, only 2,340 cases had been reported.
However, the combination of viruses complicates the existing system. New Jersey’s high rate of infection means a significant number of medical personnel are also infected, said Dr. Andy Anderson, executive vice president and chief medical and quality officer for RWJBarnabas Health.
“We’re definitely seeing a strain on our staff and we’ve had to rely on outside staff and nurses,” Anderson said. Maintaining that staffing level is “definitely at the limit right now,” he said.
The three viruses are also straining medical supply chains across the country. Albuterol, a drug used to open airways in the lungs and commonly prescribed to treat severe respiratory conditions, has been in short supply for several weeks, according to the Federal Food and Drug Administration. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, supplies of albuterol inhalers, which are also used by people with asthma, became scarce in early 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Doctors said that preventing infection is the best course of action for people through vaccination, hand washing, wearing a mask in public places, and staying home from work and social gatherings if sick or a family member is sick.
“If a child has any symptoms, it’s important to keep them out of school where they can infect other children,” said Pell of K. Hovnanyan Children’s Hospital. “Hand hygiene is very important. This is how many of these viruses are usually spread. And by all means… encourage children to wash their hands regularly.”
Amanda Oglesby is an Ocean County native who works for Brick, Barnegat and Lacey townships and environmental protection. She worked in the press for more than ten years. Contact her at @OglesbyAPP, email@example.com or 732-557-5701.