2022 isn’t even through, and yet, influenza has already peaked, the respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV, has driven up pediatric emergency visits and COVID-19 hospitalizations are climbing in the United States.
It’s what many have been referring to as the "tripledemic" — a collision of the three viruses that have been putting a strain on the healthcare system. Doctors warned the surge of these viruses would happen simultaneously this winter — and it appears the U.S. is now in the midst of it.
"Unfortunately, it seems like we are," Dr. Tia Babu, an infectious disease expert at the University of Washington, told FOX Television Stations. "We are seeing increases in RSV, influenza, and COVID-19 is starting to slightly tick up in our country right now."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told FOX that the United States is currently experiencing elevated levels of all three viruses — and high activity may not be slowing down anytime soon.
"We anticipate that high levels of respiratory virus activity may continue for several more weeks, or possibly even months," a spokesperson with the CDC warned.
While experts are not sure what is causing the earlier-than-usual peaking of these viruses, theories include decreased mitigation measures (less face masking, social distancing) and increased indoor activity.
"It’s very concerning, I think, to all of us," Babu continued, adding, "We’re watching with bated breath right now as infectious disease physicians."
RSV hospitalizations surge
While RSV is a very common virus, with many children getting RSV by the time they turn 2 years old, hospitalizations this year, in particular, are on the rise.
CDC surveillance has shown an increase recently in RSV detections, RSV-associated emergency department visits and RSV hospitalizations in multiple U.S. regions, with some regions nearing seasonal peak levels.
"The burden on our hospitals right now is extremely high," Babu added.
According to Children’s Mercy, RSV typically occurs in the winter, starting around November. In 2020, there was very little RSV in the Kansas City area and in the U.S. It was likely related to people wearing masks, washing hands and distancing, which all decrease the spread of respiratory viruses, including the viruses that cause COVID-19 and RSV.
Yet, earlier this month, the hospital said they reached capacity with sick kids, FOX 4 in Kansas City reported. The medical staff has been treating RSV and flu cases since October.
"We have activated our emergency plans," Chief Emergency Management Medical Officer Dr. Jennifer Watts told FOX 4. "We activated those a few weeks back. We continue to find overflow spaces. We continue to develop creative ways in order to take care of kids. We are making plans in order to address these issues, but it certainly is concerning watching those numbers rise."
COVID-19, RSV and flu symptoms
All three are respiratory viruses that can be easily mistaken for one another, due to similar symptoms. And while testing remains the best way to figure out what virus you might have, there are some small differences between the three that might give you a clue as to which one you've contracted.
"Because multiple respiratory viruses are co-circulating, many with similar symptoms, testing is important to determine the appropriate treatment," the CDC continued.
RSV can cause a cough, runny nose and a fever, and one of the unique symptoms of RSV is a wheeze or rattle when someone breathes. In some cases, it can lead to severe illnesses like bronchiolitis, the swelling of the small airways in the lungs or pneumonia.
One of the most distinctive signs of the flu is a high fever, reaching 103 or 104 degrees Fahrenheit. It can also cause nausea and vomiting, along with fever, chills, fatigue and headache. Children under the age of 5 and especially those under 2 are at higher risk of complications from the flu, including dehydration, ear and sinus infections, inflammation of the heart or brain tissues and pneumonia.
COVID-19 has symptoms similar to flu and RSV, but unlike those viruses, can have a major effect on body systems outside the lungs, even causing the condition known as "long COVID." Symptoms of COVID-19 include a cough, headache, shortness of breath, loss of taste or smell, diarrhea and more.
How can Americans stay safe?
"During the winter season, more people typically assemble indoors with less ventilation. And with the holidays quickly approaching, we also know that many people will be traveling, gathering and socializing with loved ones," the CDC added.
This is why the CDC said it is "critical" that everyone takes steps to reduce the burden of respiratory disease.
According to the agency, this includes getting your recommended COVID-19 and influenza vaccines and taking every-day preventive actions such as covering your cough and sneezes, staying away from people who are sick, staying home if you are sick and washing your hands.
"Both the updated COVID-19 vaccines and this year’s flu vaccines were formulated to protect against the viruses currently circulating, the CDC explained, adding that they can lower the risk of severe illness and death.
As of Monday, only 14.1% of Americans over the age of 5 years old had been vaccinated with the latest COVID-19 booster shot.
The CDC notes there are also prescription drugs that can be used to treat flu and COVID-19 illness, which are especially important for people who are at higher risk of complications from respiratory disease.
An intensive care nurse cares for a patient suffering from respiratory syncytial virus who is being ventilated in the children's intensive care unit of the Olgahospital in Stuttgart. (Credit: Marijan Murat/picture alliance via Getty Images)
To be most effective, the CDC says these treatments should be started as soon as possible for patients who are hospitalized with flu or COVID-19, people who are very sick with the viruses but who do not need to be hospitalized, and people with flu or COVID-19 who are at higher risk of serious complications based on their age or health.
The agency recommends you consider wearing a high-quality, well-fitting mask which may help reduce the spread of respiratory viruses — especially in certain circumstances like crowded community settings or when someone is sick or at higher risk for respiratory disease.
If you do get sick with the flu and COVID-19, there are now prescription antiviral drugs that can be used to treat illness, but these treatments must be started within days after you first develop symptoms to be most effective.
Doctors said the spread of RSV can also be prevented by washing your hands for at least 20 seconds, keeping away from people who are sick and covering coughs and sneezes.
There is currently no antiviral medication to treat RSV, but health officials say parents should seek medical attention if their children are having difficulty breathing.
"My biggest recommendation is to get vaccinated," Babu shared. "I can’t stress it enough."
This story was reported from Los Angeles. FOX 5 New York contributed.