Currently, the healthcare sector is facing a “triple threat” as cases of RSV, COVID-19, and the flu are prevalent and circulating. Also known as the “tripledemic,” the circulation and collision of these viruses is a concern, as health professionals have expressed it may overwhelm emergency rooms (ERs).
According to the Yale School of Medicine, while all three viruses are circulating, they are peaking at different times—which supports health practitioners in managing cases better. While pediatric RSV and flu cases are currently down, COVID-19 is increasing in adults, and the flu is declining among the elderly.
In this blog post, we’ll explain each virus, as well as its symptoms and treatment, so you can learn how to protect yourself and others, and tips on how to best cope with the triple threat this winter.
What Is RSV?
Respiratory Syncytial Virus—also known as RSV—is a respiratory virus that causes infections of the lungs and respiratory tract. It generally causes mild, cold-like symptoms, including the following:
- Congested or runny nose
- Low-grade fever
RSV is most common among children but can also infect adults. Most infections go away on their own within two weeks, but in severe cases, the infection can spread to the lower respiratory tract causing pneumonia or bronchiolitis. There is no specific RSV treatment, but patients may relieve symptoms by medically managing their fever, drinking lots of fluids, and resting.
What Is COVID?
The coronavirus, also known as COVID, is a highly infectious respiratory disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. COVID-19 specifically refers to the strain of the virus identified in late 2019, which has since circulated worldwide.
There have been over 6.7 million deaths worldwide due to COVID-19, with over 1 million of those deaths being in the US. Currently, there are 3,907 new deaths weekly being reported across the country due to COVID-19.
COVID symptoms are wide-ranging, from mild cold symptoms to severe illness. Common COVID symptoms include the following:
- Fever or chills
- Difficulty breathing
- Fatigue and body aches
- Loss of taste and/or smell
- Nausea and diarrhea
It is important to note that the list is not exhaustive as COVID symptoms change with new variants and vary depending on vaccination status. To confirm if you have COVID, you can take advantage of free COVID testing options, either at a facility such as a pharmacy or at home. However, it is also important to note that COVID tests are not 100 percent accurate, as some tests show false negatives when, indeed, the individual is infected with the virus.
The treatment for COVID-19 usually involves managing its symptoms with over-the-counter medicines or antiviral treatments targeting “specific parts of the virus to stop it from multiplying” and “prevent severe illness and death.” While most patients can manage symptoms from home, they are advised to go to the hospital if they have difficulty breathing, disorientation, persistent chest pain, or have discolored hands or lips.
Read more about helpful pandemic resources for nurses as well as risks for healthcare workers during the pandemic.
What Is the Flu?
Influenza, commonly known as the flu, is a respiratory infection of the nose, throat, and lungs. Flu symptoms are similar to those of a common cold and may include a runny nose, sore throat, fever, etc.
The CDC estimates that this flu season has seen at least 260,000 hospitalizations and 16,000 deaths. In recent years, there have been up to 54,000 flu-related deaths in a single flu season.
Seniors, babies, children below five years of age, pregnant people, and those with chronic illnesses are the most vulnerable to the flu. To protect themselves and others, everyone over the age of six months is encouraged to get a flu shot each season as it keeps flu symptoms at bay and prevents its potentially serious complications, especially amongst high-risk people. There are several free options for flu vaccinations, which you can find using your ZIP code here.
How Long Does the Flu Last?
According to Harvard Medical School, the flu typically lasts five to seven days and can last even fewer days if one has been vaccinated against influenza.
How Can Hospitals Prepare for This Triple Threat?
While the triple threat of RSV, COVID-19, and the flu are circulating simultaneously, hospitals and medical centers need to prepare in the event of overwhelming case numbers if the viruses peak simultaneously. To prepare, hospitals can stockpile supplies, including personal protective equipment (PPE), identify ways to increase capacity by adding beds and overflow tents, and improve ventilation to reduce the spread of the airborne virus.
Leadership teams in medical settings should also communicate and collaborate with other health facilities to stay up to date with disease surveillance to inform infection control practices. Through these collaborations, facilities can develop partnerships with teaching hospitals and medical schools to tap into additional staff when needed.
Final Thoughts | Triple Threat of RSV, COVID-19, and the Flu
During this triple threat, we are likely to see record-high positive cases and hospitalization rates, which cause further strains on healthcare facility resources. The flu season typically lasts until early spring, so the virus will likely spread. As flu and RSV cases circulate amongst children, many children’s hospitals are “at or above capacity,” which can be stressful for all involved—children, their parents, and the health professionals working to support them.
As a healthcare professional, you likely see cases of RSV, COVID-19, and the flu every day. With some preparation and strategic planning from leadership, facilities can better prepare for the surge of cases you are likely seeing and will continue to see in the coming months.