NEW BEDFORD — The so-called “triple-demic” of RSV, flu, and Covid-19 is hitting the South Coast, and experts say holiday gatherings could drive the surge even higher.

“Our [emergency department] visits have now reached volumes that are almost up with the height in early 2020,” said Dr. Dani Hackner, chief clinical officer at Southcoast Health. “And our admissions to hospital have reached similar levels to early 2020.”

Dr. Hackner and other leaders in the Southcoast Health hospital system hold calls twice a day to track hospital capacity, which can vary by the hour. It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation, he said.

Of the three respiratory illnesses, the flu is putting the biggest burden on the system, Dr. Hackner said. In the emergency department they’ve seen a “near vertical spike of influenza that far exceeds anything that we’ve seen for some time,” Dr. Hackner said.

This year’s flu season is off to an early and aggressive start, according to data from the state Department of Public Health. 

“These are somewhat normal events occurring at a much earlier — not a typical — time of the year”’ Dr. Hackner said. “It’s been very challenging.”

The Greater New Bedford Community Health Center is seeing more flu cases too, said Cheryl Bartlett, the center’s CEO. She chalks it up to people returning to pre-pandemic habits.

“This is our first winter where we have been fairly unrestricted in our movement and travels and not masking, and having big holiday parties,” she said.

The hardest part isn’t so much the number of patients, but having the staff to treat them, Bartlett said. Many of the center’s employees have had to stay home after catching the flu themselves.

Cases of RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, have also surged since August. The virus usually causes cold-like symptoms for most people, but it can be severe enough to put young children and the elderly in the hospital.

The spike is happening now because children weren’t exposed to the virus throughout the pandemic, Dr. Hackner said, and their immune systems weren’t prepared when society reopened.

Dr. Hackner said the number of emergency room visits for RSV has been “absolutely remarkable,” more than they’ve ever seen before. But the number of cases is beginning to drop across the state, CDC data shows.

Covid-19 is still around too, though it’s not causing as much trouble as the other two viruses, Dr. Hackner said. The hospital system is treating about the same number of Covid-19 patients as they were in the fall of 2020, before the Delta and Omicron surges.

“The good news is that folks are returning to get care,” he said. “At the peak of COVID a year ago, folks delayed coming in, and the year prior people really stayed away from healthcare facilities out of fear — and that fear was frankly deadly.”

Covid-19 testing data isn’t as reliable as it used to be now that so many people are using at-home tests. But the virus can be detected in wastewater, giving a more complete picture of local infection rates.

Earlier this month, the concentration of Covid-19 in New Bedford’s wastewater hit its highest point since the city started testing its water in July, according to the state’s Department of Public Health. But the numbers are lower than other nearby communities that also test their water, and they are nowhere near the high concentrations seen by Massachusetts water systems that were testing their water this time last year.

Still, healthcare providers urge caution. Upcoming holiday gatherings are likely to fuel more virus spread.

“We need to be cautious all winter,” said Bartlett, the community health center CEO. “I don’t think we’re really done with Covid.”

Bartlett and Dr. Hackner said it’s a good idea to wear a mask and get vaccinated against the flu and Covid. The experts also recommend limiting contact with others when you’re sick — that includes staying home from work.

And don’t wait to get treatment if you’re feeling really sick, especially if you have other risk factors like age or chronic diseases, Dr. Hackner said.

“Seek care,” he said. “While there are waits and delays in many areas of the health system in Massachusetts, if you’re sick, the wait is worth it.”


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