Respiratory viruses are spreading rapidly across the country and state, and Madison hospitals are feeling the strain and fighting to stay below capacity limits.
Morgan Finke, a spokesperson for Public Health Madison & Dane County said it’s a “perfect storm of respiratory virus activity,” causing growing concerns about the triple threat of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), flu and COVID circulating at once.
As the flu and RSV are spreading at higher rates than seen over the past several years, local hospitals are struggling to keep up with the pace of those getting sick.
“We assumed that once we got through these rushes of COVID patients that things would improve relatively quickly, and that really hasn't been the case,” said Jeff Pothof, chief quality officer and emergency medicine physician at UW Health.
RSV patients have plateaued in the past week after a major surge with levels hitting four times what they were last year, according to Pothof. On top of that, COVID numbers have remained stable.
However, there has been an increase in patients with influenza and other “typical” illnesses, like heart failure, pneumonia and strokes.
“Volumes are really high — probably record high volumes as far as day to day,” Pothof said. “(We’re) operating in the 90% range as far as capacity goes.”
He added that not only are UW Health hospitals more full, but patients are more sick than they've typically seen in past years.
“Day to day, we get by, we do OK,” he said. “There's concern as we look at total number of cases of respiratory illness that we're diagnosing. It wouldn't take a big peak of people requiring admission either from influenza or COVID this winter to put us in a bit of a jam trying to figure out how to take care of the needs of all those patients.”
Katelyn Harms, an infection preventionist at UnityPoint Meriter hospital, has also seen numbers increase at her hospital, with longer wait times in the emergency room and more staff out sick.
“Influenza is our most common respiratory illness that we're seeing amongst our patients right now,” she said. “Monday was the first day that we saw more patients hospitalized for flu than we did COVID since the beginning of the pandemic.”
The number of hospitalized influenza cases at Meriter have tripled in the past week, Harms said. There have been a couple of influenza-related deaths, too.
Mirroring other parts of the state, flu rates are rising rapidly in Dane County, Finke said. As a result, hospitals are experiencing longer wait times.
Access Community Health Centers, Group Health Cooperative of South Central Wisconsin, SSM Health, UnityPoint Health-Meriter and UW Health issued a statement Monday urging people with mild illness to stay home or consult with providers online. Crowding emergency rooms with non-urgent patients can lead to slower care for others with more severe sickness.
It’s a different approach than what was instilled during the pandemic, Pothof with UW-Health said. He is seeing a lot of people looking to identify the illness that is making them sick when most of the treatment is the same across the board, whether it is a cold, RSV or the flu: rest, hydrate, take over-the-counter medicine, like Tylenol.
Unless someone is having difficulty breathing, is high-risk or has another serious concern, “you don't need to come to an urgent care and emergency department now,” Pothof said. For RSV, kids under the age of six months are at the highest risk and even still tend to fare well with the virus. Madison has one of three pediatric hospitals in the state and Pothof said parents should only take a child in if they are having difficulty breathing.
Compared to COVID, Pothof said the flu and RSV are “little league” and not nearly as dangerous.
Harms with UnityPoint chalked up the rapid spread of the respiratory viruses to “more opportunity for transmission.” With less masking and public health measures in place than in the past two years, symptoms can be more virulent.
“The bottom line is there's a lot of germs circulating throughout the state,” Finke said.
PHMDC has noticed higher levels of COVID in wastewater data, which isn’t cause for alarm but a sign that cases might see a bump in the winter months.
Hospitals, doctors and PHMDC are urging those who haven’t gotten their COVID shots, boosters or flu shots to do so ahead of holiday travels and plans. The CDC announced that this year's influenza vaccine is a good match for the season's flu strains, making it an effective defense. Those who feel sick should stay home. Washing hands frequently can help stop the spread of any of the viruses going around.
And, according to Pothof, it’s a myth that it is too late in the season for a flu or COVID shot.
“If you don't run into it to flu in the next two weeks and you get the vaccine, it's similar to COVID where the flu vaccine will not protect 100% of people from getting any symptoms, but the benefit is in the duration of symptoms and the severity of symptoms is less,” he said.
Harms said unfortunately for influenza, this is just the start of the increase in cases.
“We do anticipate seeing more of this for the next several weeks,” she said.