Flu, colds and COVID arriving in Idaho for a holiday reunion. Here’s what you can do.

Surge of severe illness among babies, children has stressed children’s hospitals across the nation

By: - November 16, 2022 4:30 am

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and prevention visualizes the flu activity in every state each week. (Courtesy of CDC)

It’s official: Flu season is here, and influenza cases are on the rise in Idaho.

The flu virus joins a variety of upper respiratory viruses that have already been straining Idaho’s health care infrastructure — just as the Gem State is heading into the holiday season.

Respiratory syncytial virus (more commonly known as RSV), the coronavirus and other upper respiratory bugs such as parainfluenza and enteroviruses have been circulating simultaneously in Idaho in recent weeks.

“We suspect that many children are being exposed to some respiratory viruses now for the first time, having avoided these viruses during the height of the pandemic,” Dr. Jose Romero, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a media briefing in early November.

Flu season appears to have arrived in Idaho. While influenza data are hard to come by, nearly 2% of outpatient medical visits and 1.4% of emergency room visits are now because of flu-like symptoms.

More than half of Idaho’s counties have a high level of COVID-19 transmission risk, and coronavirus levels in several Idaho wastewater testing sites have risen in the past two weeks by 100% (Southwest Idaho) to 1,000% or more (East Idaho).

In just three weeks, RSV has gone from just barely crossing the threshold of widespread transmission, to now being a full-blown RSV season with 15% of RSV tests coming back positive.

Meanwhile, the number of available hospital beds for children is running closer to zero than it has since at least the start of the year, when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services began collecting and publishing data.

The surge of severe illness among babies and children has placed so much stress on children’s hospitals across the nation that, on Monday, they sent an SOS to federal officials to declare a national emergency.

“These unprecedented levels of RSV happening with growing flu rates, ongoing high numbers of children in mental health crisis and serious workforce shortages are combining to stretch pediatric care capacity at the hospital and community level to the breaking point,” the letter from the Children’s Hospital Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics said. “We need emergency funding support and flexibilities along the same lines of what was provided to respond to COVID surges.”

Children’s Hospital Association CEO Mark Wietecha said in a news release that the seasonal illnesses on top of ongoing mental health crises in younger people have stretched hospitals to their limit “and without immediate attention the crisis will only worsen.”

With a week to go before Thanksgiving Day kicks off the holiday season, what can you do?

Stay informed about flu, RSV, COVID

Dozens of websites track and publish data on epidemics and the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are some that offer reliable, up-to-date information on Idaho and regions within the state:

Sources: Flu and RSV updates

  • The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s Division of Public Health gathers and publishes data on RSV and influenza, statewide and by public health region, in its infectious diseases dashboard: https://www.gethealthy.dhw.idaho.gov 
  • The CDC tracks various indicators across the U.S. to measure the level of flu in each state. Idaho’s flu activity as of Nov. 5 was at the upper end of “minimal,” while California, some midwestern states and most South and Southeast states were at the maximum levels of flu activity: https://gis.cdc.gov/grasp/fluview/main.html 

Sources: COVID-19 updates

This chart shows, roughly, how much COVID-19 is rising or falling in the nation, based on wastewater. Blues indicate it is receding; orange and red indicate it’s surging. The black line represents the number of wastewater treatment plants providing data at the time. (Courtesy of CDC)

Dodge those viruses — and protect those around you

Idahoans who are otherwise healthy may easily weather a bout of flu, COVID-19 or head and chest colds. But those around them may not be so lucky. For some people — even healthy ones — a virus can have consequences ranging from a lost day of work, to a new chronic illness, to hospitalization or death.

Babies, young children, older adults, pregnant people and people with underlying health conditions are most at risk for hospitalization from the flu and other respiratory diseases.

Public health officials and health care providers recommend staying up to date on all vaccinations, and following basic guidelines such as staying home when sick, or wearing a mask if you’re unable to stay home while sick.

“First and foremost, vaccination is the best defense in the prevention of influenza and COVID-19. However, people should also practice everyday preventive measures such as … covering your coughs and sneezes, staying away from individuals who are ill, and frequent hand washing or using alcohol (hand sanitizer) gels,” Romero said. “People may also choose to wear a well-fitting mask as an added precaution. Finally, with influenza and COVID-19, we also have antiviral drugs that can treat the infection for both adults and children. These work best when started early in the infection, so it’s important to seek prompt medical attention to begin early treatment.”

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Audrey Dutton
Audrey Dutton

Audrey Dutton, senior investigative reporter, joined the Idaho Capital Sun after 10 years at the Idaho Statesman. Her favorite topics to cover include health care, business, consumer protection issues and white collar crime. Before coming home to Idaho, Dutton worked as a journalist in Minnesota, New York, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Dutton's work has earned dozens of state, regional and national awards for investigative reporting, health care and business reporting, data visualization and more.