STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- If you’ve been watching the news, you’ve undoubtedly heard medical experts expressing concerns about a potential tripledemic.
But what exactly does that mean?
Tripledemic is a newly coined term used to describe coinciding surges in three major respiratory illnesses — coronavirus (COVID-19), respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and the flu — which have the potential to overwhelm the country’s hospital system.
“As we are all aware, nationally, we are seeing elevated levels of respiratory viruses including RSV, flu and COVID-19. Especially for RSV and flu, these levels are higher than we generally see this time of year,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said earlier this week.
Though RSV infections appear to be leveling off or decreasing in some parts of the country, national rates remain high, and the prevalence of the other two viruses has officials concerned.
“While this is encouraging, respiratory viruses continue to spread at high levels nationwide. And even in areas where RSV may be decreasing, our hospital systems continue to be stressed with high numbers of patients with other respiratory illnesses,” Dr. Walensky said.
The proliferation of the respiratory illnesses has prompted the CDC to recommend wearing a mask indoors in high-risk areas, including Staten Island and other parts of New York City.
“One need not wait on CDC action in order to put a mask on,” said Dr. Walensky, who recommended a well-fitting mask. “We would encourage all of those preventive measures — hand washing, staying home when you’re sick, masking, increased ventilation — during respiratory virus season, but especially in areas of high COVID-19 community levels.”
High levels of flu activity have been present across the five boroughs, while RSV continues to overwhelm hospitals in the city. The CDC said there have already been 4,500 flu deaths this season, including 14 pediatric deaths.
On Friday, City Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan echoed the sentiments of Dr. Walensky, issuing a health advisory and urging residents to return to wearing high-quality masks indoors, with Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and nearby Nassau and Suffolk counties all listed as having high COVID-19 transmission rates, according to CDC data.
“The holiday season is about togetherness and there is a way to gather safely — even as respiratory viruses in our city are unusually high. It starts with protecting yourself. Vaccination and boosters are critical but so are common sense precautions like masking when indoors or among crowds and staying home if you don’t feel well,” Dr. Vasan said.
“Also, get tested before getting together, and get treated quickly if you test positive. We want everyone to have a happy and — most of all — healthy holiday,” he added.
So, what’s causing the uptick in these respiratory viruses?
It could be linked to a lack of normal exposure to viruses since 2020, when the pandemic reached New York and New Jersey, Dr. Gary Kohn, a pediatric pulmonology specialist at Summit Health in Florham Park, N.J., told NJ.com.
“We speculate that by all the COVID quarantine we might have inadvertently suppressed the kids’ exposure to viruses, so their immune response hasn’t been as robust,” Dr. Kohn said.
The surge might also have been aided by the relaxation of masking and other measures against COVID-19, Dr. Brian McMahon, chairman of pediatrics at Richmond University Medical Center in West Brighton, told the Advance/SILive.com in September.
“It might very well be a contributing factor,” Dr. McMahon said. “I think for two years I didn’t diagnose one case of the flu or strep throat. I’m happy to see the masks off and a return to a new normal, but sure, these are respiratory illnesses, and you’re going to have more sharing of germs.”
RSV, a common, highly contagious respiratory virus, has been of particular concern due to its propensity to infect some of the most vulnerable Americans.
Most people are exposed before their second birthday, and while the virus usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms, it can be more serious for the very young, the very old and the immunocompromised.
“For the average healthy child, being under age 2 increases the risk of hospitalization. But even having said that, the vast majority of kids do not get hospitalized,” said Dr. Thomas Murray, a Yale Medicine pediatric infectious diseases physician.
On the bright side, given the virus’ commonality, medical professionals are well-informed and well-equipped to treat children in need of care.
“Right now, the problem really is just the volume of sick children. Kids can get quite sick from it, but we know how to help them,” Dr. Murray said. “Children are admitted to the hospital for extra oxygen or other supportive measures such as positive pressure to help with breathing and keep the lungs open.”
The CDC, along with the New York City and state health departments, offer the following respiratory illness prevention tips:
- Get vaccinated against the coronavirus and the flu.
- Wear a well-fitting mask indoors.
- Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
- Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
- Avoid close contact, such as kissing, hugging and sharing cups or eating utensils, with people who are sick.
- Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or shirt sleeve, not your hands.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, such as toys, doorknobs and cell phones, especially if someone is sick.
- Stay home when you are sick, and keep sick children out of school.