Cold and flu season came early in 2022.
On Nov. 4, 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a Health Alert Network Health Advisory about early, elevated respiratory disease incidence caused by multiple viruses other than SARS-CoV-2.
Interseasonal spread of respiratory syncytial virus has continued in 2022, with RSV-associated hospitalizations increasing in the late spring and continuing throughout the summer and into the fall. In October, some regions of the country were seeing RSV activity near the peak seasonal levels typically observed in December and January.
Cases of severe respiratory infection in children who tested positive for rhinovirus or enterovirus spiked in August; further testing confirmed the presence of EV-D68 in some children. Rhinovirus and enterovirus continue to circulate and are isolated in hospitalized children with respiratory illness.
In some parts of the country, influenza cases have rapidly increased ahead of what we normally anticipate. According to preliminary estimates from the CDC, between Oct. 1 and Oct. 22, 880,000 people were sickened with flu, 420,000 people visited a health care provider for flu illness, and 6,900 people were hospitalized for flu. The cumulative hospitalization rate is higher than observed at this time of year in every previous flu season since 2010-2011. Hospitalization rates are highest in children aged 0-4 years and adults 65 years and older.
Of course, this report came as no surprise to pediatric health care providers. Many children’s hospitals had been operating at or over capacity for weeks. While a systematic assessment of the surge on children’s hospitals has not been published, anecdotally, hospitals from around the country have described record emergency department visits and inpatient census numbers. Some have set up tents or other temporary facilities to see ambulatory patients and have canceled elective surgeries because of a lack of beds.
There is no quick or easy solution to stem the tide of RSV-related or enterovirus/rhinovirus admissions, but many flu-related hospitalizations are vaccine preventable. Unfortunately, too few children are receiving influenza vaccine. As of the week ending Oct. 15, only about 22.1% of eligible children had been immunized. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC recommend that all children are vaccinated, preferably by the end of October so they have time to develop immunity before influenza starts circulating. As it stands now, the majority of the nation’s children are facing a flu season without the benefits of vaccine.
There is still time to take steps to prevent this flu season from becoming one of the worst in recent memory. A strong provider recommendation for influenza vaccine is consistently associated with higher rates of vaccine acceptance. We need to recommend influenza vaccine to all eligible patients at every visit and in every setting. It will help if we can say it like we mean it. Some of us are tired of debating the merits of COVID-19 vaccine with families and may be leery of additional debates about flu. Some of us may just be tired, as many practices have already expanded office hours to care for the influx of kids with respiratory illness. On the heels of two atypical flu seasons, a few of us may be quietly complacent about the importance of flu vaccines for children.
Anyone in need of a little motivation should check out a paper recently published in Clinical Infectious Diseases that reinforces the value of flu vaccine, even in a year when there is a poor match between the vaccine and circulating viruses.