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Respiratory syncytial virus surges each winter, but this year it's early


Some hospitals in this country are overflowing again, but not because of COVID. Many are running out of available beds because of an early surge in respiratory infections, particularly RSV. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is covering this story. Rob, good morning.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's happening?

STEIN: You know, Steve, this virus, the RSV, which stands for respiratory syncytial virus, tends to surge every winter, just like the flu. And for most people, it just causes something like a cold, you know? But RSV can be more serious, even life-threatening, especially for very young children and older people. What's different this year is that RSV is surging much earlier than usual. Here's Dr. William Schaffner. He's an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University.

WILLIAM SCHAFFNER: RSV is remarkably earlier this season. It usually is prominent in January and February, but here we are in October. And in many parts of the country, it's really started to make young children and some adults sick.

INSKEEP: We've had some people sick in our household in the last few days, and everybody's passing the COVID test, which now makes me wonder. Although people do have their flu vaccines over here, is there also danger from the flu?

STEIN: Yeah, the flu - doctors have been bracing for an early flu season this year because of what happened in parts of the southern hemisphere during the winter there. And sure enough, Steve, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says flu activity is now increasing in most of the country. So far, flu is hitting earliest and hardest in southern and south-central states, but it's already pretty widespread in parts of the northeast, like New York and Washington, D.C. That's why officials are urging everyone to get their flu shots right away.

INSKEEP: Why would it be that the viruses would be hitting so much earlier than expected?

STEIN: You know, most of the common respiratory viruses, like RSV and flu, kind of disappeared the last couple of years because of all the masking and social distancing and other precautions people took to protect themselves from COVID. Here's Dr. Kristin Moffit, a pediatric infectious disease doctor at Boston Children's Hospital.

KRISTIN MOFFITT: It's what's being referred to as this immunity gap that people have experienced from not having been exposed to our typical respiratory viruses for the last couple of years, combined with re-introduction to indoor gatherings, indoor venues, indoor school and day care without any of the mitigation measures that we had in place for the last couple of years.

STEIN: And so these viruses are spreading fast again, hitting babies and other young children especially hard because RSV tends to make kids sickest the first time they get it.

INSKEEP: Which would explain why we're hearing stories about children's hospitals across the country that are filling up.

STEIN: Right, right. You know, and these hospitals, a lot of them are getting really slammed, especially in northern states. And this comes at a time when many are already having a hard time finding enough doctors, nurses and other staff. I talked about this with Dr. Mark Wietecha, who heads the Children's Hospital Association.

MARK WIETECHA: Most all the big kids hospitals are completely full. We have overflow going on in numbers of them where we're putting tents and temporary shelter capacity outside the hospitals. Many of our hospitals are on diversion, meaning they're not taking anyone new. But there's really nowhere to divert to.

STEIN: And that's leaving some very sick children waiting for hours in emergency rooms for hospital beds to open up. And, you know, Steve, all this is happening just as the country might be on the verge of yet another winter surge of COVID, raising the prospect of not just the long-feared twindemic (ph) of both flu and COVID, but now possibly a tripledemic (ph) of RSV, flu and COVID.

INSKEEP: Wow. Rob, thanks so much.

STEIN: Sure thing, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Rob Stein. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.