Local and state health agencies see increase in RSV, other respiratory illness

Nov. 3—As the winter months are approaching, local and state health agencies are reminding people to take on healthy practices to prevent respiratory illness like the flu.

With an early flu season and less exposure to viruses over the last two years, local and state health agencies are seeing an increase in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), influenza (flu), COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control reported three flu-related deaths and one confirmed pediatric flu-related death for end of the Oct. 29 week, according to the DHEC website.

The Midlands region which includes Aiken County, reported four flu-associated deaths, according to the DHEC website.

While most people will recover from the sickness in one to two weeks, older adults, pregnant people, and those with chronic medical conditions are at risk for serve complications, according to a DHEC media release.

On the state level, DHEC, the South Carolina Hospital Association, Lexington Medical Center, McLeod Health, Medical University of South Carolina, and Prisma Health have teamed up to caution residents to take actions now to reduce impacts of respiratory illnesses on the state's families and hospitals, the release said.

"Although we are early into the new flu season, we already are experiencing widespread activity; and we are preparing for significant flu activity this year," said Dr. Linda Bell, state epidemiologist, said in a media release. "It's critical that everyone who is eligible get their flu shot now to protect themselves and others. That is especially important for older residents, people with chronic health conditions, and very young children."

Locally, Aiken Regional Medical Centers has seen an increase in RSV, flu and other respiratory illnesses in adults and children.

People wearing masks due to the COVID-19 pandemic and not being exposed to viruses over the last two years are some factors in the increased number of cases, said Dr. Susan Goldberg of Pediatrics of Palmetto Pediatric Center and Outpatient with Aiken Regional Medical Centers.

"To have very high flu activity in October is very early, and it has been at least 10 years since we have seen a flu season come this early," she said.

She said there also has been an increase in outpatient pediatric cases because younger child haven't really been exposed to the viruses until now.

"Every pediatric area office in the area is sharing the stress and strain of not being able to get everyone in who wants to see a doctor and trying to help triage who can wait a few days before they are seen," Goldberg said.

Goldberg said RSV is something hospitals typically see around the end of October until the end of March and early April; but she said over the last two years, cases have been appearing over the summer. The one thing that makes RSV different is that it is a specific cold virus, and the flu has many different strains.

Goldberg said RSV can be dangerous for younger children, premature babies, and those with heart disease because the mucus can build up in their lungs, which can cause wheezing, trouble breathing and cause asthmatic symptoms.

For adults, RSV feels more like a common cold, but with a wheezing cough, she said.

Other symptoms of RSV include a runny nose, a decreased appetite, sneezing and fever, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

Goldberg said once the flu season passes, cases are expected to go down.

"The hope is that, usually when the springtime comes, the virus starts slowing down," she said.

Illness prevention tips include: hand washing, covering your mouth and nose when you sneeze, wear a mask if you are most at risk, stay home when you are sick, and get vaccinated for flu and COVID-19. After receiving a vaccine, it takes about two weeks from the vaccination date to build up maximum immunity against the flu or COVID-19.

Both the COVID-19 vaccine and the flu vaccine can be given at the same time.

COVID-19 and flu vaccines can be given at a DHEC health department, local pharmacies, health care providers, schools and work places. Flu vaccines offered at DHEC health department clinics are available by appointment by calling 1-855-472-3432 to make an appointment, or go to scdhec.gov/fluclinics to find the nearest location.

More information about preventing the flu is available by going to scdhec.gov/flu.