The United States may be facing what has been called a “triple demi-demia” this winter, with cases offlu and a virus called respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) growing at the same time.
Cases of RSV are rising rapidly in young children, who usually contract the virus by the time they are three years old but have been protected from it and other viruses during the lockout periods.
“Pediatric ICUs across the country, many parts of it, are full,” said CBS News medical contributor Dr. David Agus. Most hospitalizations now are related to flu and RSV, not COVID-19, he added.
The simultaneous rise in cases of three different viruses comes as more professionals leave the health care field for jobs that either pay better or are less physically and emotionally draining, which could further threaten the nation’s strained health care system.
“I’m concerned that hospitals and health care providers will be overwhelmed,” said CBS News medical contributor and Kaiser Health News editor-in-chief Dr. Celine Gounder. “We’re seeing very high rates of both influenza and RSV, so probably about 35,000 hospitalizations per week from those two conditions alone.”
Of course, COVID-19 is also still around. “Will we be prepared, will we have the beds? I’m really concerned about that,” Gunder said.
Hospital beds without staff
A vaccine is now available for RSV, a common respiratory virus that causes cold-like symptoms but can be serious in infants and older adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Recently, there has been a surge in RSV cases among very young children. Young children are particularly susceptible to developing severe symptoms because their immune systems are underdeveloped and their airways are smaller than adults’, making it difficult to breathe when inflamed.
The health care system is also struggling with a reduced workforce after the exodus of health care workers from the field during the pandemic, largely due to burnout. This means that even more work falls into the laps of nurses, doctors and administrative and support staff who remain in the industry.
About 330,000 medical professionals are set to leave the workforce in 2021, according to healthcare trade intelligence firm Definitive Healthcare.
“The situation is even more difficult, [with] even more understaffing, so then even more people burn out and leave,” Gunder said.
Searching for a better balance
Some of the doctors, nurse practitioners, assistants and other providers left their jobs to take early retirement, while others decided to seek administrative work and stop seeing patients.
“So there are different kinds of ways to reduce that burnout from getting a better work-life balance, which, frankly, over the last few years has been really difficult for people,” Gunder said.
Gounder said he is already seeing the impact of limited staffing on patients seeking care at Bellevue Hospital in New York.
“Patients sit in the emergency room for a day or two waiting for a bed because it’s not just about the physical bed — you have to have the doctors, the nurses and the other staff to man that bed,” she said.
“The whole system is really congested right now,” she added.
Workers in various fields walked off the job in search of better wages and working conditions during the so-called.”
There’s no clear solution or obvious way to attract more professionals back into the medical field, and while higher wages wouldn’t hurt, better pay alone won’t solve the problem, according to Gounder.
“I think people value their time in a completely different way now, and I really think that’s going to require really rethinking the health care business model, really changing the way we structure health care, how we deliver it, who delivers it,” she said said. “I’m kind of skeptical that we’re going to make those changes.”