As respiratory viruses strain America’s health care systems, the White House is offering help

As respiratory viruses strain America’s health care systems, the White House is offering help

Nearly 20,000 people in the United States were hospitalized for the flu last week, nearly double the number of admissions from the week before, according to data updated Dec. 2 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Tero Vesalainen, Adobe Stock)

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WASHINGTON – Almost 20,000 people in the United States were admitted to the hospital because of the flu last week, nearly double the number of admissions from the week before, according to data updated Friday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC estimates there have been at least 8.7 million cases, 78,000 hospitalizations and 4,500 deaths from the flu this season.

In a letter to state governors Friday, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra noted that influenza and other respiratory viruses are “increasing pressure” on the nation’s health care system.

In a letter obtained exclusively by CNN, Becerra wrote that the Biden administration “stands ready to continue to assist you with resources, supplies and personnel.”

Last month, children’s health leaders asked the federal government to formally declare a state of emergency to support hospitals and communities amid an “alarming surge in pediatric respiratory illnesses, including respiratory syncytial virus and influenza, along with the continuing emergency of children’s mental health.”

The Biden administration has not declared a state of emergency for RSV or the flu, but Becerra’s letter outlines ways to declare a public health emergency COVID-19 it can be applied to more broadly address challenges caused by the combination of COVID-19 and other respiratory and seasonal diseases.

“The administration has implemented regulatory flexibilities to help healthcare providers and suppliers continue to respond to COVID-19. These flexibilities — while critical to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic — can also help address many of the challenges you face during the spread non-COVID-19 illnesses, including RSV and influenza,” the letter said. “They remain available to you and health care providers as you all make care available in response to influenza, RSV, COVID-19 and other illnesses.”

For example, if a hospital is understaffed that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, it can use a waiver that would allow for increased capacity or easier patient transfers — even if the patients need treatment for something other than COVID-19, such as the flu or RSV .

The letter also highlights available funding, including $400 million from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prepare for and respond to public health threats each year, including influenza and other respiratory diseases such as RSV, along with data, analysis and other resources for planning compiled by the federal government. It also noted that the federal government oversees the supply chain for critical drugs and devices, and that federal health officials have been working with state governors over the past month through a meeting hosted by the National Governors Association.

“As your federal partner, we stand ready to evaluate every request for federal medical assistance and support — including requests for medical personnel and equipment — working closely with you and local jurisdictions to determine the needs and availability of appropriate resources,” Becerra wrote.

Flu activity is highest in the South, with outbreaks spreading from El Paso to southwest Virginia. All but six states have “high” or “very high” levels of the respiratory virus, and seasonal flu activity remains “high and continues to increase,” according to the CDC.

There have been nearly 17 flu hospitalizations for every 100,000 people this season, rates typical of December or January. The cumulative hospitalization rate hasn’t been this high at this point in the season in more than a decade.

The most recent surveillance data likely does not reflect the full effects of holiday gatherings, as they only cover Nov. 26, two days after Thanksgiving.

While flu continues to rise, RSV has shown signs of slowing across the country, but positive test rates remain higher than they have been in years and cumulative hospitalization rates are about 10 times higher than normal for this point in the season. In less than two months, this season’s RSV hospitalization rate is already approaching the total RSV hospitalization rate for the entire 2018-19 season.

There is no vaccine for RSV, but health officials have urged people to get flu shots and updated COVID-19 shots before winter. With the holiday season — and flu season — underway, Dr. Anthony Fauci warned this week of the potential for an emergency.

“When you have very little wiggle room in the ICU, when you have almost all the ICU beds occupied, that’s bad for kids who have RSV and need intensive care. But also all the beds are occupied, and kids who have a series of other illnesses that require intensive care or intensive care, they don’t have a bed for it,” Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday. “So if you get into that situation, it’s approaching an emergency.”

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