Health officials are warning of a “triple threat” of flu, RSV and COVID-19 across the country and hospitals are continuing to see a surge in pediatric RSV cases.
US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy joined “GMA3” to discuss how people can best prepare themselves for the winter months, what this flu season will look like, and how the federal government is working with hospitals and health care workers across the country.
GMA3: Doctor, good to have you with us, as always. I know you have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, but we’re talking about flu, RSV and COVID. Can you give us an idea, though, which one of these is kind of your leading concern, given what we’re seeing in hospitals?
MURTHY: Well, it’s so good to be with all of you again. Look, I think we have to be knowing that all three; COVID, RSV, and the flu are threats… The good news is that we are not powerless in the face of these viruses. There is something we can do to help prevent our kids and adults from getting these.
And this is very personal for me too, my two small kids who are 4 and 6. They’ve both been sick this winter with various viruses. I was in the emergency room myself with my daughter, who was ill a couple of weeks ago. So I know how this feels for parents who are scared and worried out there.
Well, with COVID and the flu, the good news is we have vaccines available and the most important job of these vaccines is to save your life and keep you out of the hospital. And by that measure, they are working well.
So I would urge parents to please get your children and get yourself vaccinated for COVID and the flu. You can do that at the same time by the way. For RSV, it turns out that that virus spreads similar to other viruses.
And taking measures like staying home if you’re sick, avoiding contact with those who are sick, making sure you’re washing your hands regularly. These can all help us with reducing the spread of the virus.
Let’s keep this in mind because it’s more important than ever, especially as hospitals are filling up, children’s hospitals in particular, that we take these measures because they’re one way that we can take care of our kids, but also relieve the strain on health care workers.
GMA3: Dr. Murthy, I hope you don’t mind us asking, though, as you mentioned your kids, are the little ones okay?
MURTHY: Well, thank you so much for asking. Yes, thankfully, we were blessed to be able to get good care for my daughter. Their doctors and nurses took great care of her and she was in the hospital for about the better part of a day, but was able to come home. And she’s much better now. Thank you.
GMA3: And Vivek, it’s Jen. Nice to talk to you again. I want to stay on RSV for a second because as you know, there are some hospitals in certain parts of the country that are at or approaching 100% capacity for their pediatric beds, even though elderly people are also affected by RSV. What in particular is being done at the hospital level to help them with resources that they need?
MURTHY: Yeah, I’m glad you raised this because I think many people may not realize this strain on our hospital systems right now. And this is a strain not just due to RSV, but for the last two and a half years.
Our nurses, doctors, pharmacists, health care workers have been dealing with waves of COVID, and they are under great strain now. We have been cognizant of this and working very closely with health care systems, with the medical associations and with states and local jurisdictions directly.
We’re doing several things. Number one, we’re offering them direct support when they need it in terms of personnel, ventilators, equipment. We are also working closely with them to coordinate so that across a given region or a state, beds can be utilized and at the most efficient, so that even if one hospital doesn’t have beds, they can work with other institutions that may have space, you know, in their region.
And we’re staying closely aligned with them to provide additional trainings and support as needed. So we’re all in this together.
We’re going to stay working closely with these institutions to make sure they have the resources they need. But keep in mind that if you want to help the hospital systems one of the most important things you can do is to get vaccinated for COVID and flu, to reach for Paxlovid, which is a medication to treat COVID-19 if you’re in a high-risk group. These are some of the best ways to keep people out of the hospital, and our hospitals need all the support that they can get right now.
GMA3: Dr. Murthy, I want to talk about influenza now. According to the CDC, two thirds of states here in this country are reporting high or very high levels of influenza-like activity. Talk about why we’re seeing these high numbers so early and what your concerns are heading into the winter months.
MURTHY: Hmm. So it’s a good question. The last couple of years have been very unusual for flu and RSV. You know, during the early years of COVID, when people were isolated, taking precautions, including wearing masks, we actually saw very low rates of flu and RSV compared to normal years.
And now as we come back to normal and as you know, more and more people are getting back to their day to day lives. We’re seeing these viruses come back and at some point they will equilibrate.
But this year, we have seen RSV and flu come earlier than normal. The good news with RSV is we’re in some parts of the country is starting to see a slowing, if you will, of the rate of rise. And that might indicate that a peak may be coming soon. We don’t know exactly when that will be, but those are some promising signs across the country.
But the bottom line is, you know, we can’t let up our guard. We have to take the precautions that we need to prevent the spread of these viruses, like washing our hands, wearing masks in crowded indoor spaces, and like making sure that we’re staying home if we’re sick. And of course, again, with COVID and flu, please get vaccinated as soon as you can. Winter is here. Cases are high and we want people to be protected.
GMA3: What’s your prediction right now? A potential COVID surge this winter, given what you’re seeing right now?
MURTHY: Well, I think we have to be prepared for the fact that we will see a rise in COVID cases in some parts of the country. We’re already seeing cases start to go up. But I do think that we will be in a better place than we were in the last two winters when we had surges.
And the reason I think we’ll be in a better place is that we have more people who have protection, either from vaccinations or from prior infection. We also have medications like Paxlovid to treat those who are in high risk groups like the elderly.
So the bottom line is, I do think we’ll be in a better position, but we need people to use these tools. And one thing that’s worth underscoring is if people are up to date with their vaccines, if they’ve gotten especially the updated COVID-19 booster vaccine…gotten your last shot two months or out, you’re now eligible to get.
If you updated your vaccines and if you reach for Paxlovid, you know, if you are in fact, in a high risk group and get sick, your chances of dying from COVID are really, really low. And so right now, we’re losing between 300 to 400 people a day to COVID-19.
The most– and most of those deaths are actually preventable if you’re up to date with your vaccines, if you reach for medications like Paxlovid, if you do get sick and we want people to know about that so they can be safe.