Surge in ‘tripledemic’ cases and hospitalizations of flu, Covid and RSV prompts the return of mask mandates

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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America’s surging ‘triple threat’ of Covid, flu and RSV has spurred the return of face masks in hospitals across the country.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show respiratory virus cases and hospitalizations are on the rise, with flu admissions climbing 48 percent in the week ending December 23 compared to the previous seven-day spell — and are up nearly 90 percent over the same time in 2019, before the pandemic.

Covid hospitalizations were also up 17 percent in a week, while respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cases, which the CDC director said had ‘peaked’ last month, were also rising again.

And Children’s hospitals in some states are feeling the pressure of the rise, with doctors saying this is the ‘worst’ winter virus season they have seen.

The figures, which do not yet reflect the impact of festive gatherings, triggered hospitals in at least seven states to bring back mask mandates for staff, patients and visitors over the last 30 days.

In total, more than 30 hospital systems across 16 states have now brought back the restrictions recently.

This week, Mass General Brigham hospital in Massachusetts became the latest to again require masks — saying the measure was needed because so many people in its units were sick with respiratory viruses. 

DECEMBER 23: The above map shows the levels of flu-like illness by state for the week ending December 23, shortly before festive gatherings. It shows more than seven states had very high illness levels

DECEMBER 9: The above map shows the levels of flu-like illness by state for the week ending December 9

DECEMBER 9: The above map shows the levels of flu-like illness by state for the week ending December 9

Surveillance shows Covid cases are rising, with data from wastewater testing showing a sharp uptick in cases

Surveillance shows Covid cases are rising, with data from wastewater testing showing a sharp uptick in cases

There are also signs RSV infections are starting to rise again after they previously trended downward. CDC director Mandy Cohen had said they appeared to have peaked

There are also signs RSV infections are starting to rise again after they previously trended downward. CDC director Mandy Cohen had said they appeared to have peaked

While cases and hospitalizations show a rise over the last few weeks, those numbers are likely to increase even further as they begin to reflect infections stemming from large holiday gatherings.

Some experts are also warning cases will continue to rise in January as the cold weather pushes more people indoors, where it is easier for respiratory diseases to spread.

Amid the uptick, hospitals are bringing back face masks in an attempt to stop the spread of respiratory diseases within their units.

But studies have failed to show definitively that face coverings prevent infections with respiratory viruses — despite millions being forced to abide by the rules.

The latest data on the flu showed 14,732 people were hospitalized with the virus in the week to December 23, compared to 9,930 in the previous seven-day spell.

The positivity rate for flu tests — the proportion that detect the virus — rose from 10.5 percent in the week ending December 16 to 13.1 percent in the week to December 23.

Across the US, approximately a dozen states are now reporting ‘very high’ levels of respiratory activity and seven states — Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, South Carolina and Tennessee — are reporting the highest levels as measured by the CDC.

Just two weeks ago, only two states — Louisiana and South Carolina — were reporting the highest levels of flu-like illness.

The above map shows states where hospitals are bringing back face mask mandates in their units for staff, patients and visitors in response to rising illnesses

The above map shows states where hospitals are bringing back face mask mandates in their units for staff, patients and visitors in response to rising illnesses

The above shows hospital admissions with Covid up to the week ending December 23. They have jumped 17 percent in a week

The above shows hospital admissions with Covid up to the week ending December 23. They have jumped 17 percent in a week

The above shows flu hospitalizations this season, which have risen 48 percent to more than 14,000 admissions in the week to December 23

The above shows flu hospitalizations this season, which have risen 48 percent to more than 14,000 admissions in the week to December 23

Estimates suggest 73,000 people have been hospitalized with the flu so far this virus season, compared to 39,000 at the same time in 2019 — before the pandemic.

An estimated 4,500 people have died from flu so far this virus season, compared to 2,100 at this time in 2019.

With Covid, data showed there were 29,000 people admitted to hospital with the virus in the week to December 23, compared to 24,000 in the previous seven-day spell.

There were also 1,545 deaths recorded in the week to December 2, the latest available, up from 1,328 from the previous week. 

Wastewater surveillance showed Covid cases had risen 15 percent in a week, with 997 copies per milliliter detected in the week to December 23 compared to 867 in the previous week.

Dr Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College in Texas, told CNN: ‘It’s a wave of winter respiratory pathogens, especially respiratory viruses.

‘So it’s Covid, it’s flu, and we can’t diminish the importance of RSV.

‘So it’s a triple threat, and arguably a fourth threat because we also have pneumococcal pneumonia, which complicates a lot of these virus infections.’

He added: ‘Remember all these numbers are before people got together for the holidays. So don’t be disappointed or surprised that we see an even bigger bump as we head into January.’

In response to climbing cases, Mass General Brigham became the latest health system to bring back face masks today, saying the coverings would be required for staff members and ‘strongly encouraged’ for patients and visitors.

The hospital system said in a statement: ‘With the percentage of patients presenting at emergency rooms and outpatient facilities with respiratory illnesses exceeding 2.85 percent in the region, our hospital will begin requiring masking for healthcare staff interacting directly with patients.

‘Patients and visitors will also be strongly encouraged to wear a facility-issued face mask.’ 

The Dana Farber Cancer Institute reimplemented face masks for patient-facing staff, patients and visitors last week while the Boston Medical Center in the area has also already brought back masks.

In Chicago, local health officials have urged hospitals to ‘step up’ their efforts to control respiratory viruses. Endeavor Health and Cook County Health in the area are among those to bring back masks for visitors.

In Los Angeles County, California, publicly-run health units have reinstated masking requirements for staff and visitors because of a ‘notable’ rise in infections.

Hospital systems in New York, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Rhode Island have also brought back face masks for staff and patients in December.

Rhode Island’s Care New England and Lifespan made the call on December 28, saying the masks would help to limit the spread of viruses.

They are added to the more than 30 health systems across 14 states that had already brought back the policies — including in Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio, Minnesota, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

States where hospitals have brought back face masks 

  1. California
  2. Connecticut
  3. Georgia 
  4. Illinois 
  5. Indiana 
  6. Kentucky 
  7. Massachusetts
  8. Minnesota 
  9. New Jersey 
  10. New York
  11. North Carolina
  12. Ohio 
  13. Pennsylvania 
  14. Rhode Island 
  15. Vermont 
  16. Wisconsin

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