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ENC hospitals bracing for patient increase that could come after holiday gatherings amid "tripledemic"

Onslow Memorial Hospital

It’s been an unusual flu season, according to Dr. Ronald May, vice president of medical affairs at East Carolina Health.

“I don’t think we’ve seen this kind of early time nor the numbers in 8 to 10 years, maybe longer,” May said.

Currently, the Centers for Disease Control rates North Carolina at a high risk of flu transmission, alongside most of the nation. Just 50% of North Carolinians have received a flu shot this season, the CDC estimates.

After two years of relatively tame flu seasons, this year’s flu season started in October, three months earlier than normal.

“The last two flu seasons were very unusual, in that they had very low numbers,” May said. “This year is different. We’re seeing high numbers, but also much earlier than we usually see it.”

RSV, COVID-19 and the flu together make up the so-called ‘tripledemic.’ All three respiratory diseases saw a spike in November and low numbers in early December. Onslow Memorial Hospital saw a decrease in COVID-19 positive results over recent weeks, but state data do show a slight trend upward.

May said while RSV transmission is higher this year, it may be in part due to an increase in testing.

Previously, testing RSV in adults was not necessary, as the most severe cases often occur in infants. Testing in infants was often reserved for severe cases. But testing for RSV is now included in a panel, or group, of tests that hospitals administer to people with respiratory disease.

Previous years saw fewer cases than normal of RSV and flu because of COVID-19 precautions, May says.

The holiday season almost always means an increase in respiratory-related illnesses, due to holiday travel and gatherings. Eastern North Carolina hospitals are preparing for the anticipated spike.

Onslow Memorial and May advise people to stay home if they are sick and avoid gatherings. Even if you are not sick, they urge people to remember the basics: wash your hands, cough and sneeze into your sleeve, and get up to date on vaccinations.

Ryan is an Arkansas native and podcast junkie. He was first introduced to public radio during an internship with his hometown NPR station, KUAF. Ryan is a graduate of Tufts University in Somerville, Mass., where he studied political science and led the Tufts Daily, the nation’s smallest independent daily college newspaper. In his spare time, Ryan likes to embroider, attend musicals, and spend time with his fiancée and two cats.