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Oct. 1, 2023

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Triple whammy of respiratory illnesses hits Clark County

Public Health director said 25 percent of flu tests coming back positive

By , Columbian staff reporter

Clark County has been hit with a “triple whammy” of infectious disease that has filled hospital beds and overwhelmed emergency departments, the county’s health officer warned Wednesday.

The county’s residents are sick with the same three diseases as the rest of the United States: flu, COVID-19 and RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, Dr. Alan Melnick said during an online news conference called by Clark County Public Health.

“The local urgent care clinics and our hospital emergency departments are now seeing record numbers of patients,” Melnick said. “If you don’t have an emergency health issue, visit your doctor, visit your primary care provider, your primary care physician or go to an urgent care clinic, so we can relieve the pressure on the emergency departments.”

Unlike during the last two years, when the public practiced masking and social distancing, flu cases began to rise early this year. Signs point to what may be a more severe flu season, in part due to the public’s lack of exposure to respiratory illnesses during the pandemic, according to Melnick.

Flu season is declared when 10 percent or more of tests submitted by medical providers are positive for influenza. As of last week, 25 percent of tests were coming back positive. Preliminary data shows this week will likely see a substantial increase, according to Melnick.

Hospitals are also seeing an uptick in RSV cases and are reportedly predicting a more severe RSV season than in pre-pandemic years.

As of Nov. 17, more than 96 percent of hospital beds and more than 96 percent of intensive care unit beds were occupied at Clark County’s hospitals, according to Clark County Public Health.

Melnick recommends a few at-home management strategies for mild respiratory illness symptoms:

  • For fever and pain, consider using over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen.
  • Drink lots of fluids.
  • Use a cool mist dehumidifier to break up mucus.
  • For children, use a nasal spray or gentle suction to help improve breathing.

“If you’re concerned that your child’s symptoms are not improving, or getting worse, call your primary care provider before going to an emergency department,” Melnick said. “If you or your child are struggling to breathe or (are experiencing) severe shortness of breath, then you do need to get emergency care.”

Everyone seeking care at an emergency department will be seen, but wait times can be long.

One of the best ways to prevent severe illness and avoid hospitalization is getting a flu vaccine and an updated COVID-19 booster.

Currently, only around 20 percent of the eligible population has received an updated COVID-19 booster, according to Melnick. Statewide, around 15 percent of people 5 to 15 years old have received an updated bivalent booster, and only about 9 percent of children 6 months to 4 years old have completed the primary vaccine series, according to Washington State Department of Health data.

Melnick explained why vaccines are crucial to both individual and public health.

“The concern is, new variants (of COVID-19) will be able to develop. The more virus that’s circulating in the community, the more opportunity there is for mutations to occur and new variants to emerge, and some of them may be more capable of avoiding immunity,” Melnick said.

“The other concern is, we could end up with a variant that is more lethal and causes more severe disease that we haven’t seen yet. So the idea of getting vaccinated is not just to protect yourself, but really it is to protect everybody around us as well.”

While no vaccine is 100 percent effective, getting vaccinated helps decrease your chance of infection and, if you do get infected, decreases the likelihood of severe illness, according to Melnick.

Health officials are urging people to take steps to stay healthy and prevent the spread of the flu and other respiratory illnesses. The Washington State Department of Health recommends the following:

  • Get the flu vaccine and the COVID-19 booster.
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water. Use hand sanitizer when soap is unavailable.
  • Sneeze or cough into the crook of your arm.
  • Avoid close contact with sick individuals.
  • Consider wearing a mask.
  • If you are sick, stay home.

Those at a higher risk from flu or other respiratory illnesses include people 65 and older, people with certain chronic medical conditions, pregnant people and young children, especially those under 2 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If you are concerned about respiratory illness-related symptoms, call your primary care physician, visit an urgent care center or go to the nearest emergency department.

To schedule a vaccine, visit VaccineFinder.org.

Columbian staff reporter