A respiratory virus is on the rise in Florida as the winter flu season continues, and at least one major urban area of the state is seeing signs of a steady increase in COVID-19, but doctors say not to panic just yet.
Hospitals across the state are seeing more patients with RSV, a respiratory illness that mostly causes mild cold-like symptoms and spreads among children each year in the fall or winter. However, it can be serious for some adults and children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
National news headlines have warned of a “triledemia” of COVID, RSV, and the flu. But doctors like pediatrician Celina Moore of West Boca Medical Center have a message for anyone concerned: “Don’t panic.”
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Wastewater tests in Palm Beach County, the state’s third most populous, have found more coronavirus particles in wastewater since early October, reversing a month-long decline.
About 6 percent of pediatric patients in emergency rooms statewide tested positive for RSV during the week of Sept. 11-24, which the Florida Department of Health says is up from 1 percent to 3 percent during the same period two years ago.
“We’re seeing a bunch of typical childhood viruses that are usually widespread throughout the season all happening at the same time,” Moore said.
Hospitals are seeing an increase in adults with RSV
That’s because of the COVID pandemic, he said. In normal times, children would have been exposed to pathogens like RSV as they grew up. But quarantines and isolation kept children from infection. Now that kids are back to in-person schooling, Moore said, they’re picking up the germs all at once.
And while RSV mostly infects children, “we have a clear increase in the number of RSV cases in hospitals,” said Boynton Beach infectious disease specialist Dr. Kitonga Kiminyo, vice president of the T. Leroy Jefferson Medical Society. “We’re definitely seeing more cases than we’re used to.”
But, Kiminyo points out, few cases of RSV in adults are serious. As with COVID, though, people with underlying health conditions can suffer the worst effects of RSV, he said.
Both RSV and the coronavirus appear to be on the rise in Palm Beach County, according to sewage readings from the Loxahatchee River District in Jupiter.
On Monday WastewaterSCAN, a nationwide initiative that includes Stanford University, contained about 18,000 RSV genetic fragments. That’s more than double the number found on September 14, when the district began sending wastewater samples for testing.
Tests on Wednesday revealed about 1,062 pieces of the coronavirus per milliliter of sewage, up from about 268 per milliliter on Oct. 3. Wastewater tests from other Florida counties have yet to show consistent growth of the viral molecule.
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The district is testing for Monkeypox, but so far has found nothing.
About 8.5 percent of Palm Beach County’s COVID tests last week came back positive for the respiratory disease, the Florida Department of Health said Friday in its two-week pandemic report. This is down from 9.9% in the week ended October 21.
Statewide, the latest ratio is 7.8%, up from 7.1% two weeks ago.
“There are vaccines for COVID, and there are vaccines for the flu,” he said. Moderna and Pfizer’s latest coronavirus boosters, approved by the federal government in late August, were built to target the omicron variant of the coronavirus. Almost all of the COVID infections this year have been caused by omicrons and their variants.
And while there is still no vaccine against RSV, monoclonal treatments can be given to the children most threatened by the pathogen: infants and children with heart or lung disease from birth.
And through sewage testing and other data that infectious disease specialists can find useful for tracking RSV, Moore said that for most people it shouldn’t be cause for alarm.
Vaccines have made COVID infections more severe. And the latest versions of the virus are milder than the previous ones. In a recent review of patients infected with COVID, Dr. Larry Bush, an infectious disease specialist in Palm Beach County, said, “It’s hard to differentiate from upper respiratory illnesses.”
“I haven’t seen anyone this sick from COVID in a long time,” said Bush, a former president of the Palm Beach County Medical Society.
People who see a spike in numbers, Moore said, should make sure they wash their hands more — RSV spreads in the air and on surfaces — and stay away from those most vulnerable to the pathogen — sick children and the elderly. “It doesn’t mean we have to buckle down and go back to lockdown.”
COVID by the numbers in Florida
Florida recorded an average of 11,579 infections each week between Oct. 21 and Friday, the state Department of Health’s biweekly pandemic report shows. It is slightly higher than the previous two weeks, but still 85% lower than the summer peak in July.
Hospitals across the state admitted 1,110 COVID-positive patients on Friday, the US Department of Health and Human Services said, the lowest since the first week of May. Hospitalizations have been over 1,000 since the beginning of October.
Florida’s COVID death toll rose by an average of 183 residents each week since Oct. 21. That’s the lowest weekly rate since mid-June.
At least 82,541 Floridians have died from COVID. The death toll excludes more than 3,000 victims found by state auditors in 2020 that were not included by the Department of Health.
More senior residents age 65 and older have died from COVID-19 in Florida than in any other state since vaccines became available for adults in April 2021, a recent Palm Beach Post analysis shows.
At least 29 percent of Florida residents have gotten COVID-19 boosts beyond the first two shots from Moderna and Pfizer or the Johnson & Johnson single-dose formula, a Post comparison of state data and U.S. Census Bureau population estimates shows.