HANCOCK COUNTY – The county is no exception to the skyrocketing viral infections being reported across the nation, according to health officials.
Those spikes are filling up the local hospital and straining the area’s supply of medications used to treat the illnesses.
Viruses that have been unusually scarce over the past three years are reappearing at remarkably high levels, the Associated Press reports, sparking a “tripledemic” of COVID-19, the flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. This November’s national hospitalization levels for influenza were the highest in 10 years.
Dr. Gary Sharp, Hancock County Health officer, pointed to the last flu season’s mildness, which he attributed partly to the much more widespread use of masks at the time.
“All the lack of social distancing and the triple threat with COVID, the flu and RSV is why we’re seeing the surge in respiratory diseases,” Sharp said.
Craig Felty, vice president, chief nursing officer and chief operations officer for Hancock Regional Hospital, said the hospital is seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases and a steady number of flu cases. He added that while the hospital does not do a lot of pediatrics, there have been some inpatients with RSV. The hospital’s physician practices are experiencing a high number of visits as well.
“For the most part we’ve been full,” Felty said.
Cooling weather and recent Thanksgiving gatherings are two reasons for the spikes, he continued.
“We are expecting that we’re probably going to have a rough next few weeks because of the holidays again,” he said.
Hancock Regional Hospital had nine COVID-19 inpatients as of Tuesday afternoon, which Felty said was one of its higher days over the last six months.
“The good thing about the current strain of COVID is that it does not seem to be creating as serious of an illness on patients as some of the initial strains,” he said.
Most patients coming in need a little supportive oxygen, he continued, adding very few have needed a ventilator.
The current strain is just as – if not more – contagious as the virus has historically been, however, Felty also said.
Many of the hospital’s recent COVID-19 inpatients have not received their vaccine boosters, according to Felty.
“What we’ve said all along is very true: Just because you got the COVID vaccine – and you could be potentially boosted – it doesn’t mean you’re not going to get COVID,” he said. “But one of the great aspects and one of the great attributes of the vaccine is that we know it lessens the severity of your disease when you get it.”
Felty encourages everyone to stay up to date on their vaccinations.
“We’re seeing a lot of patients that did not get the flu vaccine this year, and it’s not too late to get it,” he said, noting flu season typically spans from October until early April. “So you definitely still need to get it if you haven’t. Even if you’ve had the flu, I still would recommend getting the flu shot because it covers four different strains of flu.”
The influenza strain being seen the most locally is H3N2, Felty said, which is included in the vaccine.
“There are more strains in the vaccine than just one, so it could cover you down the line a little bit in a month or two if another strain becomes a little bit more prevalent,” he said.
He also said if someone gets vaccinated for influenza and still catches the virus, it typically results in a milder illness.
To prevent the spread of respiratory diseases, Felty recommends isolating yourself if you’re sick or have been exposed to COVID-19 or influenza, wearing masks, frequent hand-washing, and practicing good respiratory hygiene, including sneezing into your elbow or a tissue.
As illnesses rise, so too does demand on medicines for fighting them. Alex Bush, a pharmacy technician and marketing manager for Medicap Pharmacy in Greenfield, said the pharmacy has been experiencing some issues on that front, but has an advantage over some of the chains due to having more suppliers.
“Tamiflu – stuff like that – we have all that in stock,” he said.
One obstacle the pharmacy hasn’t been able to avoid, Bush said, has been a nationwide shortage of amoxicillin suspension, used for treating different kinds of infections.
“That has been on manufacturer back-order for about a month and a half now,” he said. “I have pediatrician offices call me daily to see what liquid antibiotics I have in stock, and then they prescribe based on that pretty much, which has never happened anytime recently that I’m aware of.”
Drugs for treating viruses and infections aren’t the only ones pharmacies are having trouble stocking.
“I have a list of about 50 medications right now that I cannot get,” Bush said, including ones for ADHD, weight loss and diabetes. “…It’s been an absolute disaster recently.”