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Berkshire County health organizations issue warning about spike in dangerous trifecta of respiratory illnesses among young people

A sign with directions for various departments of a hospital stands at a crossroads
Josh Landes

Two of Berkshire County’s major healthcare providers have issued a joint warning to parents about taking protective measures to shield their children against surging seasonal respiratory illnesses. Berkshire Health Systems and Community Health Programs say that between the flu, rising RSV cases, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a triple threat has emerged for young people that is straining public health resources both here and across the U.S. WAMC spoke with CHP Chief Medical Officer Andrew Beckwith about what parents can do to protect their children and the public health system.

BECKWITH: The basis is, you know, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and for everyone in the community to do what they can to minimize the spread of these respiratory viruses, which include RSV, which is respiratory syncytial virus, COVID-19, influenza, and then there's also what are known as ILIs, or influenza-like illnesses. So, there's other viruses that can cause similar symptoms, and by employing the usual preventative measures, we can hopefully reduce hospitalizations which are really at a sort of unbelievable level at the moment. So, that includes the hand washing, being careful about getting together in gatherings where there might be exposure, daycare exposures, and appropriate vaccination. So, vaccination for influenza and COVID 19 for infants ages six months and older and young children.

WAMC: Now, looking at the numbers for RSV cases in the US, you weren't kidding, because the numbers according to the CDC went from about 4.4 in March over a five-week average to almost 300, over a five-week average. What's behind that massive spike?

Most likely, it's the time of year when RSV often peaks and we have a larger percentage of the population that really doesn't have its usual natural immunity because of the pandemic and other measures that have been in place for a while with social distancing and other things. There was sort of a dip in the usual illnesses. This probably led to something of a decline in the natural immunity against RSV and other common colds and things like that.

Can you break down for us more about RSV? What exactly is it? What does it lead to? Is there a vaccine for it or some medical recourse to address it?

RSP or respiratory syncytial virus is a commonplace viral illness. It's a cold-like illness for most people. Most of us are exposed as children, and it's usually minor and self-limited. But just like many of these other viruses in someone who may have other health issues or be immunocompromised, it could lead to more severe illness. There's not a vaccine at the moment for RSV, although I believe that there are research trials underway to develop vaccines.

Now that triple threat of COVID, flu, and RSV- What are some easy ways to avoid that in public settings? Do you recommend masking, for example, to folks trying to avoid these respiratory illnesses?

I think that masking is probably always generally a good idea to reduce exposure and to prevent spread of respiratory illnesses that are spread by droplets and aerosols. Vaccination is another big part of that. So, as I mentioned, there's no vaccine for RSV. But there are vaccines for COVID-19, and influenza. So, anyone who is eligible to receive those vaccines should really consider receiving them to minimize their risk personally for serious illness, and also to try to help contain the spread of the illnesses.

Can you explain why exactly this spike in RSV has led to this kind of, somewhat uncommon warning from groups like CHP and BHS?

I don't know if you remember at the beginning of the pandemic, but there was this concept of ‘flatten the curve,’ which was, let's hope everyone doesn't get sick at once, because we don't have resources to take care of everyone if everyone is ill at the same time. And I think that what we're seeing might be because of this concatenation of events, all of the viruses at the same time and RSV season, that we weren't able to flatten the curve. And so, we're seeing many more hospitalizations all at the same time in people who are susceptible to the viruses due to the events that led up to this. So, this lack of, for several years, because of more social distancing, and things like that, lots of children just weren't exposed to the virus. And now they're all back in school, daycares, you know, sort of life more like usual, and suddenly everyone's being exposed to some of these viruses for the first time, all at the same time.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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