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Respiratory Illness Season in the Time of COVID-19: An Added Burden for Healthcare
Hospitals at the Breaking Point
As the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 continues to sweep the country, we are seeing peak numbers of cases since the beginning of the pandemic. Hospitals are feeling the weight of this spike as the infected make their way into acute care settings, filling beds. Facilities around the country are experiencing such a demand for healthcare services that it has overwhelmed their ability to provide. Entire healthcare systems and even states have been forced to activate Crisis Standards of Care, which ultimately results in the difficult task of determining who receives care and who does not. The current situation in northern Idaho is a prime example of this as hospitals are at max capacity resulting in patients seeking care across the border in Washington and overwhelming their system.1
The healthcare situation, already bleak, could soon get worse. The unfortunate reality is that SARS-CoV-2 isn’t the only respiratory pathogen currently circulating in our communities. As respiratory illness season knocks at the door, illnesses such as influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), rhinovirus, and others will add stress on an already strained healthcare infrastructure. We have already seen a glimpse of unusually high numbers of illnesses with the uptick in RSV cases beginning in April 2021 accompanying the relaxation of COVID-19 precautions.2 Health experts fear the reality of a “twindemic” this year with the prediction of a severe flu season and the potential of increased coinfections.3 This all points to the fact that it is likely only going to get worse before it gets better.
Keeping Prepared this Respiratory Illness Season
The past year of the pandemic has taught us how difficult it is for patients to receive the care they need when healthcare facilities face countless challenges including staffing shortages, burnout, and limited resources. As facilities and staff carry on through the difficult circumstances brought about by the pandemic, there is a need to step beyond the singular focus on COVID-19 and proceed with an approach to deal with the countless threats on the horizon. Currently, perceptions on the modes of respiratory virus transmission are shifting, and with that new information there must be a willingness to adapt and prepare with the necessary tools to fight back. More than ever, it is imperative that healthcare workers act as stewards of infection prevention to protect the vulnerable and help stop the spread of respiratory illnesses in healthcare.
In preparation for what could be a long winter ahead, consider adopting the following practices in your facility:
- Monitor the current respiratory illness situation using CDC’s FluView and NREVSS
- Continue to perform extensive screening of staff, patients, and visitors entering a facility to promptly identify suspected illnesses
- Review and become familiar with CDC’s Isolation Precautions for respiratory illnesses
- Ensure cleaning and disinfection is performed regularly with products that are EPA-registered and have appropriate pathogen claims for respiratory viruses
- Consider using no-touch disinfection technology such as an electrostatic device to assist under-resourced staff to quickly and efficiently disinfect exam rooms, patient transport equipment, and large spaces (e.g., waiting rooms)
- Remain current with immunizations including annual flu shots, Pneumovax (<2 yr and >65 yr), and COVID-19 vaccines
- Provide resources for and encourage staff to self-isolate and not come to work when ill (presenteeism)
- And as always, practice good respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene!
While navigating these trying times, we applaud healthcare workers for all their efforts and hope that these suggestions can help ease the burden and lessen the impact felt by the healthcare industry. First and foremost, we want healthcare workers to take care of their own physical and mental well-being so they can continue to care for others. Over the next several months through the respiratory illness season, comfort and safety will come as deliberate efforts are made to help reduce the spread of pathogens and protect the health of patients, staff and loved ones.
1. Baker M. ‘Their Crisis’ is ‘Our Problem’: Washington Grapples with Idaho Covid Cases. The New York Times. 2021 Sep 13 [cited 2021 Sep 24]; Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/13/us/coronavirus-hospitals-washington-idaho.html
2. RSV National Trends. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2021 [cited 2021 Sep 24]. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/surveillance/nrevss/rsv/natl-trend.html
3. Upcoming Flu Season Will Likely Be Severe. University of Pittsburgh Health Sciences. [cited 2021 Sep 24]. Available from: https://www.upmc.com/media/news/083121-roberts-flucovid-medrxiv