A viral hurricane is making landfall on health care systems battered by three pandemic years. With the official start of winter still weeks away, pediatric hospitals are facing crushing caseloads of children sick with RSV and other viral illnesses. Schools that promised a “return to normal” now report widespread absences and even closures from RSV and flu in many parts of the country, contributing to parents missing work in record numbers. With this year’s flu season beginning some six weeks early, the CDC has already declared a flu epidemic as hospitalizations for influenza soared to the highest point in more than a decade.
A storm of these proportions should demand not only crisis clinical measures, but also community prevention efforts. Yet instead of deploying public health strategies to weather the storm, the U.S. is abandoning them.
Even before the arrival of the so-called tripledemic, U.S. health systems were on the brink. But as the fall surge of illness threatens to capsize teetering hospitals, the will to deploy public health measures has also collapsed. Pediatricians are declaring “This is our March 2020” and issuing pleas for help while public health efforts to flatten the curve and reduce transmission rates of Covid-19 — or any infectious disease — have effectively evaporated. Unmanageable patient volumes are seen as inevitable, or billed as the predictable outcome of an “immunity debt,” despite considerable uncertainty surrounding the scientific underpinnings and practical utility of this concept.
The Covid-19 pandemic should have left us better prepared for this moment. It helped the public to understand that respiratory viruses primarily spread through shared indoor air. Public health practices to stop the spread of Covid-19 — such as masking, moving activities outdoors, and limiting large gatherings during surges — were incorporated into the daily routines of many Americans. RSV and flu are also much less transmissible than Covid-19, making them easier to control with common-sense public health practices.
Instead of dialing up those first-line practices as pediatric ICUs overflow and classrooms close, though, the U.S. is relying on its precious and fragile last lines of defense to combat the tripledemic: health care professionals and medical facilities.
Warnings and advisories recently issued by U.S. public health leaders, clinical leaders, politicians, and the media have consistently neglected to mention masking as a powerful short-term public health strategy that can blunt the surge of viral illness. Instead, recent guidance has exclusively promoted handwashing and cough etiquette. These recommendations run counter to recent calls to build on improved understanding of the transmission of respiratory viruses.
In the U.S.’s efforts to “move on” from thinking about Covid, it has created a “new normal” that is deeply abnormal — one in which we normalize resorting to crisis measures, such as treating patients in tents, instead of using common-sense public health strategies. Treating Covid like the flu — or the flu like Covid — has effectively meant that we treat neither illness as if it were a serious threat to health systems and to public health. Mobilizing Department of Defense troops and Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel to cover health system shortfalls is apparently more palatable than asking people to wear masks.
The tripledemic has already claimed its first child deaths in the U.S., adding to a large ongoing death toll from Covid. Allowing health systems to reach the brink of collapse will lead to many more preventable deaths among pediatric and other vulnerable patients who can’t access the care they need.
By any accounting, these losses are shocking and tragic. But they should strike us as particularly abhorrent and shameful because the tripledemic is a crisis that leaders, health agencies, and institutions have, in a sense, chosen. Over the past year, the Biden administration and its allies have repeatedly encouraged the public to stand down on public health measures, with the President even stating in September that “the pandemic is over.” By moving real risks out of view and failing to push for more robust measures to mitigate Covid, these messages have put the country on a path to its present circumstances, in which pediatric RSV patients are transferred to hospitals hundreds of miles away because there is no capacity to treat them in their own communities.
Living with viruses should mean embracing simple public health measures rather than learning to live with staggering levels of illness and death. Leaders in public health and medicine should issue timely and appropriate guidance that reflects the latest science instead of second-guessing the prevailing winds in public opinion. Instead of self-censoring their recommendations out of fear of political consequences, they should continue to promote the full range of public health strategies, including masking in crowded indoor public places during surges.
The tripledemic should bring renewed urgency to policies that will reduce the toll of seasonal illness on health, education, and the economy. Improvements in indoor air quality in public spaces, including schools, child care centers, and workplaces, can limit the spread of diseases and have many demonstrated health and economic benefits, yet the U.S. continues to lack standards to guide infrastructure or workplace safety standards. Paid leave enabling workers to stay home when they are ill can reduce the transmission of disease as well as loss of income, yet the U.S. is one of the only high-income countries without universal paid sick leave or family medical leave.
Greater effort must also be made to increase vaccination coverage for flu and Covid and bring an RSV vaccine online as quickly as possible. Only about half of high-risk adults under 65 received a flu shot last year, a gap that can be closed with more energetic vaccination campaigns. Reducing annual flu deaths using a broader range of strategies enabled by the pandemic — rather than pegging Covid deaths to them — should be the goal.
Amid the many sobering stories of the tripledemic, there is some good news. As the experience of Covid-19 has shown, it is possible to limit the toll of respiratory viruses like flu and RSV. However, this work requires resources, appropriate policies, and political will. Americans don’t need to accept winter disease surges and overrun health systems as an inevitable new normal. Instead, the country should see the tripledemic as a call to reinvigorate public health strategies in response to these threats to the health of our communities.
Anne N. Sosin is a public health practitioner and researcher and a Policy Fellow at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College. Lakshmi Ganapathi is a pediatric infectious disease specialist and an instructor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. Martha Lincoln is assistant professor of cultural and medical anthropology at San Francisco State University.
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