Cold and flu season looked a lot different in recent years as Michiganders wore masks, distanced themselves physically from others, and were extra cognizant of symptoms in the midst of a global pandemic.
The result was significantly fewer reports of respiratory infections, including next to no documented cases of influenza. By limiting the spread of coronavirus, communities seemingly had a stranglehold on other viruses as well.
But in December 2022, many of those defense mechanisms are no longer in play, and health systems are seeing waves of sick people. Schools have closed because staff members are ill. Even the Detroit Lions are affected; sick players missed practice this week.
Doctors saw a surge of RSV infections this fall, followed now by a spike in influenza cases, all while COVID-19 infections continued at a steady pace. Add in other respiratory infections that cause “cold” symptoms this time of year, and it begs the question – is this cold and flu season worse than usual or are we as a community just out of practice being sick?
“I think part of why numbers are high is we haven’t had – for three years essentially – exposure to flu or RSV,” said Dr. Matthew Sims, an infectious disease specialist for Corewell Health East, previously known as Beaumont Health. “As we know with these respiratory viruses, you build up antibodies. and those antibodies will last for a while. You won’t get full protection past a few months for respiratory viruses, but you will get some protection.
“It’s quite possible since it’s been years rather than months, everybody’s antibody levels are kind of lower than they would be from just routine exposure and boosting of whatever you had.”
At Henry Ford Health in Oakland County, Dr. Jennifer Burgess said the increase in illnesses is likely a result of communities letting down their guard. That means less handwashing and masking, more people getting together indoors, kids back in schools, and traveling without mandatory masking.
“It’s not necessarily that symptoms are worse, but people almost forgot how it felt to be sick because we were doing so good not being sick,” said Burgess, a family medicine specialist.
Based on the flu season in the southern hemisphere earlier this year, health officials have projected a tougher flu season this year in the U.S.
That is starting to become the reality in Michigan.
During the last week of November, Corewell Health East had about 344 flu patients systemwide. By the second week of December, the number jumped to about 760. Sparrow Health said it has also seen a steeper increase in flu hospitalizations compared to pre-COVID years.
Flu patients don’t appear to be any sicker than normal. About 90% of flu patients at Corewell East are sent home. About 10% need further care and they tend to have other conditions or risk factors like poor cardiac health, which leaves them vulnerable to more severe illness.
Symptoms of COVID, influenza and other infections can look a lot alike. One common symptom seperating the flu from other respiratory illnesses is a fever reaching 102 or 103 degrees. Meanwhile, COVID-19 is typically showing with a dry cough and runny nose as of late 2022.
Burgess said she’s also seeing a lot of stomach bugs that cause vomiting and diarrhea in school-age children and their family members. Though it’s sometimes referred to as the stomach flu, the illness (viral gastroenteritis) is caused by a separate virus.
With sick patients on the rise, Michigan’s health systems have noted increased wait times in emergency rooms and shortages of various medications including antivirals like Tamiflu which can be used to reduce the duration of influenza illness. Hospitals aren’t at the point of strain they saw at peaks of the COVID pandemic, but staffs are taxed and turning to strategies like treating additional patients in hallways to maintain adequate care.
It is early in the flu season, and yet Corewell Health East has seen about 10 times as much flu already compared to this time in 2019. Continuing talk of a tri-demic has physicians reminding residents to be cautious and fall back on defenses used much of the COVID pandemic.
“It’s never going to hurt (to mask); it’ll probably give you added protection but it’s not necessarily something you have to do,” Burgess said. “We just have to be more aware and do the things that we did in the past. The big one is washing your hands.”
In addition to good hygiene, health care workers recommend monitoring for symptoms and isolating when unwell.
“As far as infection prevention practices, we’re not doing as well,” said Dr. Paul Entler, a vice president at Sparrow in Lansing. “Protection isn’t locking ourselves in. We need to be out and about, but hand washing is really important, and if you haven’t already, consider getting the flu and COVID vaccines.”
Vaccines don’t fully prevent infection, but reduce risk of severe illness and can lead to milder symptoms and quicker recovery.
To find a vaccine near you, visit vaccines.gov or call the COVID-19 Hotline at 888-535-6136 (press 1) between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, or 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on the weekend.
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