“Triple epidemic” in the United States could bring a deluge of patients to hospitals

The US could very well face what has been called a “tripledemic” this winter, with cases of COVID-19flu and a virus called respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) rising at the same time.

Cases of RSV are rising rapidly in young children, who typically contract the virus by age 3 but were protected from it and other viruses during pandemic lockdown periods.

“Pediatric intensive care units around the country, many parts of it, are full,” said CBS News medical contributor Dr. David Agus. Most hospitalizations are now related to flu and RSV, not COVID-19, he added.

The threat of a “triple epidemic” is not new, according to Dr. Michael Mina, chief science officer at eMed and the country’s leading epidemiologist.

“Public health officials have been preparing for this possibility since early in the pandemic,” he said in a statement to CBS MoneyWatch.

Americans’ weakened immunity — a result of hunkering down and limiting exposure to others during the COVID-19 pandemic — is behind the simultaneous rise in cases of three different viruses.

“The recent increases are fully expected consequences of a new virus that caused massive fluctuations in human behavior. We know that immunity works exactly as it should, and in this case that means we have drained immunity at the population level by not have exposures,” said Dr. Mine.

Dr. Mina urged hospitals to prepare now by stockpiling supplies and finding ways to increase capacity by adding new beds.

The simultaneous rise in cases of three different viruses comes as more professionals leave the health field for work that pays better or is less physically and emotionally draining, which could further threaten the country’s strained health care system.

“I’m concerned that hospitals, health care providers will be overwhelmed,” said CBS News medical contributor and Kaiser Health News editor Dr. Celine Gounder. “We’re looking at very high rates of both influenza and RSV, so probably about 35,000 hospitalizations per week just for those two conditions.”

Of course, COVID-19 also still exists. “Should we be prepared, should we have beds? I’m really concerned about that,” Gounder said.

Unmanned hospital beds

A vaccine is now available for RSV, a common respiratory virus that causes cold-like symptoms but can be serious in infants and older adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Recently, there has been an increase in RSV cases among very young children overwhelmed pediatric hospitals. Young children are particularly susceptible to developing severe symptoms because their immune systems are undeveloped and their airways are smaller than adults’, making it more difficult to breathe when they are inflamed.

The health system is also struggling with a reduced workforce following an exodus of health workers from the field during the pandemic, largely due to burnout. This means that even more work falls on the laps of the nurses, doctors and administrative and support staff who remain in the industry.

About 330,000 doctors dropped out of the workforce in 2021, according to healthcare commercial intelligence firm Definitive Healthcare.

“It is an even more difficult situation, [with] even more understaffing, then even more people burn out and leave,” Gounder said.


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Looking for better balance

Some of the doctors, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and other providers left their jobs to take early retirement, while others decided to seek out administrative work and stop seeing patients.

“So those are all different ways to reduce that burnout of having a better work-life balance, which frankly over the last couple of years has been really hard for people,” Gounder said.

Gounder said she is already seeing the impact of limited staffing on patients seeking care at Bellevue Hospital in New York City.

“Patients sit in the ER for a day or two waiting for a bed, because it’s not just about having the physical bed — you have to have the doctors, the nurses, the other staff to staff that bed,” she said.

“The whole system is really clogged up right now,” she added.

Workers across various fields left jobs in search of better wages and working conditions during the so-called “Great Resignation.”

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution or obvious way to lure more professionals back into the medical field, and while higher wages wouldn’t hurt, better pay alone won’t solve the problem, according to Gounder.

“I think people value their time in a completely different way now, and I think that would require really rethinking the business model of health care, really changing how we structure health care, how we deliver it, who provides it,” she said. “I’m somewhat skeptical that we will make those changes.”

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