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Flu, RSV, and COVID-19 | 'Tripledemic' driving a national wave of illnesses

UT Medical Center said it's serving seven times as many flu patients as normal. Children's Hospital primary care doctors are seeing record numbers of patients.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Three different viruses are driving a national trend of sickness — RSV, COVID-19 and the flu. Some experts are calling it a "tripledemic," and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said around 78% of hospital beds across the nation are being used.

In Tennessee, they said around 76% of all beds are in use. The state has around 18,300 beds available and almost 14,000 are taken, they said.

"Many of us have noticed a surge of respiratory infections in the community," said Dr. Mahmoud Shorman, a UT Medical Center professor of infectious disease. "We've had about seven times more hospitalizations with the flu this time of the year, compared to previous years."

Not many of these beds are taken up by people diagnosed with COVID-19, though. Only around 6.4% of the hospital beds used across the country are for COVID-19, according to the HHS data.

In Knox County, about 2% of staffed inpatient hospital beds are occupied by patients with COVID-19. According to data from Nov. 23, the Knox County Health Department reported 278 new cases and fewer than ten deaths.

"[We've had] record-breaking visits for East Tennessee Children's primary care offices and the numbers continue to increase," said Dr. Karie McLevain-Wells of West Knoxville Pediatrics. "We've seen a lot of RSV. Interestingly enough, it started in October, which is a little earlier than historically it had been in years past."

She said the flu followed quickly on the heels of RSV.

Symptoms of COVID-19 can include muscle and body aches, shortness of breath, fever, sore throat and the loss of taste or smell. People usually notice symptoms around three or four days after they were first exposed to the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Knox County is at low risk for the coronavirus as of Nov. 24.

Flu symptoms tend to develop more suddenly than COVID-19 or RSV and usually include a runny nose, fatigue and fever. Tennessee is at the highest risk category for the flu as of Nov. 25, according to the CDC.

The Knox County Health Department said it is normal to see high flu case counts in late November and early December. 

However, it is not as easy to track data related to RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus. It usually affects children under one year old and adults 65 years old and older with weakened immune systems. The symptoms can vary based on age, making RSV a hard virus to report.

Health experts warned that communities may see more RSV cases among kids since they returned to school and are socializing more, compared to the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The best way to stay protected from illness is by getting vaccinated. The Knox County Health Department is offering vaccines at both of its locations. One is located at 1028 Old Cedar Bluff and the other is located on Dameron Avenue.

To protect others, people can also wash their hands frequently and wear a mask to help prevent viruses from spreading. Experts also warned that there could be another spike in illnesses after the Christmas holiday and into January as the temperature drops.

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