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Pima County warns of rise in RSV, COVID & flu cases ahead of holiday weekend
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Pima County warns of rise in RSV, COVID & flu cases ahead of holiday weekend

  • Dr. Theresa Cullen, director of the Pima County Health Department, talking to reporters about increased cases of respiratory disease heading into the Thanksgiving weekend.
    screenshotDr. Theresa Cullen, director of the Pima County Health Department, talking to reporters about increased cases of respiratory disease heading into the Thanksgiving weekend.

Respiratory viruses are spreading at higher rates than normal for this time of year, and people be cautious during Thanksgiving weekend, Pima County health officials said.

Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, along with flu and COVID-19 are spiking even before people are traveling for the holiday, and people should be careful not to spread the infections if they plan to gather with family in the coming days, the county advised Tuesday.

COVID and influenza cases are increasing again, and the number of RSV infections is 10 times normal.

Dr. Theresa Cullen, director of the Pima County Health Department, said that a current spike in respiratory viruses during the winter will likely carry on through the holidays and past December.

"I am concerned that we are going to see a rise in COVID, a rise in flu and a rise in RSV for the next four to six, perhaps eight, weeks," Cullen said. "There are things you can do to protect yourself and protect your community."

The holidays are a time to be together in one place, Cullen pointed out, and in the winter, "it gets cold, people come inside, people do less activities outside." Because of this, "we are at more risk to seeing increased transmission of respiratory diseases during this time period." Still,  "people gather and celebrate, which is what we want them to do," Cullen told reporters during a virtual press conference.

Continuing to use masks and distancing will help slow the spread of infections, she said.

More people getting sick with respiratory diseases in the winter is normal, Cullen said, but "what is unusual is the number of cases we're seeing of both RSV and influenza and this increase in COVID again."

The number of cases of RSV in Pima County are “10 to 11 times what we’re used to seeing this time of the year” compared to a five-year average, Cullen said. “We remain increasingly concerned about RSV and the impact on the community,” she said.

Statewide, 1,326 lab-confirmed RSV cases were reported on the week of Nov. 6-12, according the most recent report by the Arizona Department of Health Services. Pima County reported 113 RSV cases during that period. During the last five years, Arizona only reported 66 RSV cases on average during that Nov. 6-12 period while Pima County only reported 10 RSV cases on average.

Young children are particularly at-risk during the current spread of respiratory viruses, Cullen said. Pima County is “seeing increased hospitalization of pediatric patients who are being admitted with RSV as well as other respiratory infections,” she said.

Traditionally, RSV affects children less than 6 months old, Cullen said, but right now the county is seeing an increase in the number of cases among 1 to 4-year olds.

The rate of flu is “four times what has been in the past” compared to a five year average, Cullen said. The number of flu cases in Pima County “seems to be peaking earlier,” she said.

Statewide, 966 lab-confirmed flu cases were reported on the week of Nov. 6-12, according the most recent report by the Arizona Department of Health Services. Pima County reported 41 flu cases during that period. The five-year average for flu cases in Arizona during that Nov. 6-12 period is 95 cases while Pima County typically only reported 10 flu cases for the same period.

“Our hope is that we will see a decline in flu,” she said. “We have seen in other parts of the country a rapid increase and then a decrease” in flu cases.

Flu vaccines are widely available, including free flu shots at Walgreens and CVS pharmacies. People can find the closest place to get the flu vaccine online at vaccines.gov.

With COVID-19, Pima County is currently rated as experiencing a “low” level of community spread by the Centers for Disease Control, but Cullen said Tuesday that their numbers have gone up in recent weeks. Santa Cruz and Graham counties are the only other areas rated as having a "low" spread.

The CDC factors in the rate of COVID cases per 100,000 people along with the number of new hospital admissions during the past week and the number hospital inpatient beds being used by those patients.

Pima County had 167 new COVID cases per 100,000 people during the last seven days and reported 8 new hospital admissions for the virus during that period, with about 4% hospital beds being used for COVID patients.

While the county’s COVID infection and hospitalization rate is “low” according to the CDC, Cullen warned that the 167 new COVID cases reported marks a 33% increase from the previous week.

Pima County recorded 1,750 new COVID cases last week and 12 deaths from the virus during the same period. Arizona reported 10,775 new cases and 34 deaths since last week, according the ADHS website.

The positivity rate, which is the percent of people who test positive for COVID, is about 16%, but many people are using home testing, which requires people self-report their results. Many do not do so.

Stay safe

Culen recommended people stick to “layered mitigation,” which means using more than one strategy to stay safe, such as masking combined with physical distancing.

Distancing may be difficult heading into Thanksgiving, Cullen said, but she recommended trying to have gatherings outside as much as possible. She also recommended "hand-washing and appropriate ventilation if you're having event" and to "stay home if you're ill."

She also recommended people continue to get COVID boosters targeted at newer variants, which are also known as bivalent boosters. This would require getting the initial vaccines against COVID.

Vaccines, boosters and pediatric vaccines are still available at certain locations in the county, including county health clinics. Locations, hours and which vaccines are available are listed online.

Testing is still widely available too, Cullen said, though the Tucson International Airport has stopped offering testing. Many libraries give away free at-home tests without requiring people to sign up for them with their personal information.

"If you want test kits, they're ubiquitously available," Cullen said.

The county also offers “proctored” testing, which means someone will help administer the test, at the Abrams Public Health Center. All testing sites and events are listed online.

The increased spread of respiratory viruses could have to do with people's decision to mask during the pandemic, Cullen said, as people covering their mouths may have prevented them from being exposed to respiratory viruses when they normally do in the year, preventing a chance to build an early immunity.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.

Flu symptoms, according to the CDC:

  • Fever or feeling feverish/chills — not everyone with flu will have a fever.
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Tiredness
  • some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.

RSV symptoms, according to the CDC:

  • Runny nose
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Wheezing

People infected with RSV usually show symptoms within 4 to 6 days after getting infected. Symptoms of RSV infection usually include

These symptoms usually appear in stages and not all at once. In very young infants with RSV, the only symptoms may be irritability, decreased activity, and breathing difficulties.

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