By Marin Wolf
Flu hospitalizations now outnumber COVID-19 hospitalizations in North Texas for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic as multiple respiratory viruses continue to spread across the region.
North Texas hospitals reported nearly 479 flu patients and 444 COVID-19 patients on Monday, a significant increase from the nearly 296 flu patients and 306 COVID-19 patients reported on Nov. 23, according to Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council data.
The 2022-23 flu season is shaping up to be one of the worst in more than a decade. Cases and hospitalizations from the virus shot up unseasonably early as the U.S. entered its first flu season without COVID-19-era public health measures like masking and social distancing.
“This year has just been an anomaly, because the number of RSV and flu cases we’ve seen are higher than pretty much any year I can remember since I’ve been a physician, and the number of patients that are getting admitted and treated are higher than I’ve ever seen,” said Dr. Maxie Brewer, a hospitalist at Cook Children’s in Fort Worth.
While respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, also saw an unseasonable rise in cases and hospitalizations, especially among babies and young children, cases are currently trending downward. Brewer said it’s too soon to say whether RSV has reached its peak this season.
Children’s Health in Dallas had 258 patients test positive in the week ending Nov. 26, down from 291 in the week ending Nov. 20. Cook Children’s reported 222 positive RSV tests in the last week, compared with more than 250 the week before. The hospitals both reported increases in flu cases.
Pediatric hospitals have had to handle the brunt of the recent surge in respiratory illnesses. Pediatric hospital bed capacity was at 96% on Monday, while the total hospital bed capacity for North Texas was at just below 91%.
RSV — which causes mild, coldlike symptoms in most healthy children and adults — can be serious or even fatal for infants, children with compromised immune symptoms and the elderly. The flu, on the other hand, is more likely to cause severe illness in older children as well, “which leads to us seeing more variety of patients and more patients total because you see more kids affected by it,” Brewer said.
Most of the pediatric flu patients Brewer has seen this year have had gastrointestinal symptoms, like vomiting and diarrhea, which can cause dehydration. She said some flu patients have also gotten pneumonia, an infection that inflames air sacs in the lungs.
The jump in flu cases comes exactly one year after scientists in South Africa and Botswana first identified the omicron variant of the coronavirus. The variant caused a massive increase in hospitalizations in North Texas that overwhelmed an understaffed health care system.
Parkland Health, Dallas County’s public hospital system, has not seen a large number of employees out because of the circulating respiratory illnesses this fall.
North Texas hospitals are set up well for the increasing numbers of flu cases, said Steve Love, president and CEO of the DFW Hospital Council.
“We don’t want people to panic, but we do know that the flu increases in hospitalizations and cases continue to incrementally go up,” Love said. “What we’re going to have to do is be very careful and monitor it closely over the next seven to 10 days to see if we have an impact from Thanksgiving.”
Medical experts don’t know when the flu will reach its peak, especially because cases started to increase so early this year.
“It’s really difficult to predict. This respiratory season has been upside down and I think the medical community feels it is somehow because of COVID-19,” said Dr. Carla García Carreño, pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children’s Health.
Good health hygiene practices, like regular washing of hands and staying home when sick, remain some of the best ways to prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses. Vaccinations against the flu and COVID-19 are also available for most age groups.
Anyone 6 months or older can receive the flu shot and the initial COVID-19 vaccine series. The new bivalent booster dose, which protects against both the original and omicron COVID-19 strains, is available for anyone 5 and older who received their previous COVID-19 dose at least two months prior.