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Experts advise precautions with COVID, flu, RSV triple-demic threatening children's hospital capacity

Fear of triple-demic of respiratory viruses looms over the holidays
Fear of triple-demic of respiratory viruses looms over the holidays 02:51

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Local experts are warning of a triple-demic – with COVID, flu, and RSV cases in children all climbing for what is expected to be the worst season in a decade.

As CBS 2's Tara Molina reported Tuesday, numbers are already on the rise following Thanksgiving get-togethers.

All eyes have been on pediatric bed availability for months, because we have seen availability dip as low as 2 percent across the state with RSV upticks. Availability in Chicago is at just under 5 percent right now.

And now, with this triple threat season, doctors say everyone needs to start taking it all seriously.

"Right now, we are in the midst of an emergency," said Geraldine Luna, medical director for the Chicago Department of Public Health.

That applies specifically with children, Luna said. She said the health system is "being stressed out as we speak."

In Chicago, ICU pediatric bed availability is at 5.5 percent, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. State spokespeople tell us they like to see availability at 20 percent.

The statewide pediatric ICU capacity in Illinois was 9.8 percent, and in suburban Cook County 19.5 percent.

"In addition, we are starting to see RSV hospitalizations decline while flu cases are continuing to rise, the IDPH said in a statement. "This is why IDPH and are hospital and healthcare partners are emphasizing the importance of flu shots for young children, who along with the elderly are more vulnerable to the flu."

Doctors across the board are sounding the alarm about a triple-demic.

"We call it a triple threat," said Dr. Lamar Hasbrouck, chief operating officer of the Cook County Department of Public Health.

COVID, the flu, and RSV are all showing up right now with very similar symptoms, according to the doctors with whom we spoke.

"Yes, they're going to present very similar," Hasbrouck said.

"Congestion, runny nose, coughing - and that might be it," added Luna.

Luna added that we can no longer depend on certain telltale symptoms to distinguish COVID as we might have a couple of years ago.

"Don't expect to see those traditional symptoms of losing smell or taste," she said. "This new variant is as common as any common cold in terms of symptoms."

Luna said a rise in upper respiratory infections is something that is commonplace during the holiday season – and hospitalizations follow positive cases.

"The cases we were expecting, the positive cases, we're starting to account for those," she said. "Two weeks from now, then we start seeing hospitalizations from those cases." 

We are told the biggest concerns are with the youngest and oldest groups. But when it comes to youngest?

"Parents of children are opting not to vaccinate children," Luna said.

Numbers gave dropped. Luna said less than 70 percent of parents are getting their kids vaccinated for flu, and COVID vaccinations aren't where they'd like to see them.

This is something Luna and Hasbrouck both hope changes as we move forward in this triple-threat season.

"Give yourself the gift of health this holiday season," she said. "That means getting yourself a flu shot and/or booster."

Hasbrouck also said those experiencing symptoms should stay out of the workplace and congregate symptoms – and those who do not need to be at the hospital should not go.

"From a hospital capacity standpoint, especially regarding pediatric beds, we do anticipate with these three infections, there may be a surge. There may be bed capacity issues," he reiterated. "So we want to keep the worried-well out of the corridors of the hospital."

Other precautions are also advised – particularly given the medium risk state for COVID in Chicago, Luna said.

"Universal masking is highly recommended at this point," she said. "We are at medium risk for community levels." 

Further, she emphasized, "If you're experiencing symptoms, stay at home and get tested."

There is no vaccine for RSV. But with shots available for two of the three - COVID and flu - everyone we talked to Tuesday emphasized the importance of getting both - and doing everything you can at home to stop this spread.

Lurie Children's Hospital Medical Director of Infection Prevention and Control Dr. Larry Kociolek provided this update about the state of capacity and concerns at that hospital:

"Our numbers of influenza cases has increased by about 50% per week for past several weeks, and influenza is our most frequently diagnosed respiratory virus currently. Numbers of RSV cases have decreased by about 25% per week over past several weeks.  Our COVID-19 numbers remain low."

Lurie Children's Hospital provided this link on the flu vaccine for kids.

Lurie also emphasized that children who are six months old or older are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine – and should get it along with the flu vaccine as soon as possible.

Children under 6 months old are too young to get the COVID vaccine. Thus, Lurie advises, anyone with regular contact with infants should get the flu shot and COVID-19 vaccine and booster.

Lurie also provided this bullet point list on keeping your child healthy:

RSV, influenza and COVID-19 can be prevented through common sense measures that protect us from all respiratory viruses. It is important to stay home when sick to avoid spreading viruses to others.

Lurie Children's experts recommend the following tips to stay healthy:

  • Visiting your pediatrician for recommended well checks and stay up to date with routine immunizations and health recommendations.
  • Practicing frequent hand washing, especially before eating and after toileting or changing children's diapers, can protect yourself from viruses.
  • Avoiding large gatherings, especially if other sick people will be attending, as respiratory viruses are often spread in these settings. This is especially true if you or your child are at risk of more severe illness from respiratory viruses.
  • Staying up-to-date on COVID-19 vaccines and boosters can protect you against COVID-19 this winter. Patients can schedule COVID-19 vaccine online or by calling 312.227.5300.
  • Getting the flu vaccine each year during cold and flu season. 
  • Encouraging all family members and family contacts to receive important vaccinations like the COVID-19 vaccine and the flu shot, to also protect your child.

Meanwhile, the Cook County Department of Public Health reminded the public about its Boost Up Cook County campaign promoting staying up to date on both COVID and flu shots. Information on where to find the vaccine can be found at the campaign website.

And the city is making it easier than ever to get your COVID booster and flu vaccine. The city's Public Health Department will bring both shots to your home for free. You can make an appointment here.

Latest suburban Cook County data on flu

Latest suburban Cook County data on COVID-19

Chicago city information on flu

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