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RSV and flu begin to recede in Washington; coronavirus still a wild card

2022-12-24 respiratory virus chart.jpg
Washington Department of Health
The initial spike of flu season (teal) stands out on a graph showing reported respiratory viruses in Washington this season. RSV is shown in purple. Coronavirus is listed, but its appearance here is not considered accurate because of the way the data are reported.

After a scary surge in mid- to late 2022, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) appears to be on a retreat in Washington. The flu is backing down a bit. And a feared coronavirus wave has not yet materialized.

The latest summaries from the Washington Department of Health show flu and RSV are declining, and coronavirus cases remain modest compared to previous waves. But the state’s epidemiologist for communicable diseases, Dr. Scott Lindquist, said there’s still some uncertainty about how the rest of the winter will play out.

Flu cases in Washington climbed rapidly very early in the season, as did hospital visits prompted by flu-like illnesses. But in December, those measures began to decline. That, Lindquist said, would be consistent with a typical flu season, whose up-and-down pattern resembles the curved cables of a lopsided suspension bridge.

“This happens every single year. No one really understands it,” Lindquist said. “We get this cyclical nature of all our respiratory viruses, with a sharp rise and then a sharp drop after that.”

The sharp rise happened very early in the season this time, Lindquist said. If historical patterns still apply, he said, the state might see its second, smaller wave earlier in the season, too. But Lindquist pointed out that would be a bit unusual, and it is not a sure bet.

Nevertheless, the Department of Health’s most recent summary said flu activity in Washington is still considered very high. And the virus continued to claim lives. The week of December 18 to 24, 27 Washingtonians died from the flu. That brought the season-to-date total to 93 people. For comparison, 114 died in the entire 2019-20 flu season.

The agency’s weekly summary also shows RSV is in an ebb phase, at least up to December 24, the latest date for which data are available. That’s not too unusual, either, according to Lindquist.

Lindquist says RSV has a much more predictable nature than coronavirus. And it’s unclear what trajectory Covid will take from here.

“RSV, we have years and years of experience. What we don’t have is a lot of experience with SARS-CoV-2,” Lindquist said. “So we are still learning lessons about how persistent this virus will be. What looks like a mild increase in the current strain could very easily become a new variant and have another peak.”

The latest state-level data show Covid cases at a far lower rate than those seen in the delta and omicron waves. Hospitalizations are modest. Death rates began ticking up in November, but are still low compared to previous waves.

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.