Thanksgiving night went well at Jay Gollyhorn’s Seattle apartment.
His youngest son and his son’s fiancée were visiting from Vancouver, Washington, and staying for the week. But the next morning, the symptoms set in.
“It hit all three of us at the same time,” the 63-year-old said in an interview from a hospital bed. He spent the rest of the weekend battling bouts of vomiting and severe body aches.
When a dizzy Gollyhorn had trouble standing on his own Monday morning, his son took him to Seattle’s VA Medical Center on Beacon Hill. He tested positive for influenza A.
Flu season has hit the United States harder and earlier than usual in what health officials call a “tridemic” of multiple respiratory viruses at once. Although infections typically begin to increase around December or January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed that at least 44 states are already reporting high or very high flu activity.
Most of us have probably been knocked out with a cold or the flu recently, or know someone who has. Now, medical providers and public health experts are hoping the experience will motivate Washingtonians to take mitigation measures to heart as the holiday celebrations approach.
Washington’s crushing flu season continued, hitting infants and older adults particularly hard and filling hospital beds with the most patients the state has seen at this point in the season since 2019. By Friday, 13 Washingtonians, including two children, had died of flu-related illnesses, according to the state Department of Health.
In King County, at least three long-term care facilities have reported flu outbreaks over the past week, according to county data. As of late November, visits for flu-like illnesses accounted for about 15.5% of all ER visits in the county, up from about 2.5% in 2019.
For Gollyhorn, her hospital experience began to change her mind about preventive measures. He hasn’t had a flu shot in decades, souring on the thought of vaccines after he had a bad reaction to a swine flu shot, part of a notorious mass rollout of vaccines in the years 1970.
Now, he says, he has his doubts – especially after being forced to miss his youngest son’s wedding on Thursday.
One of Gollyhorn’s other sons broadcast the ceremony live for him, but he was heartbroken not to be there in person.
“Don’t be like me. Don’t be one of those people who can’t swallow their pride,” Gollyhorn said Friday. “I mean, look what it cost me yesterday. It’s something I can’t recover.
Gollyhorn hoped to be released over the weekend, but said “every inch of [his] the body always hurts. He also suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, emphysema and asthma, which sometimes makes his breathing even more difficult.
“I’m going to get up and go to the bathroom, and I’m out of breath,” he said.
At the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic, run by Seattle Children’s, triage volumes have been “out of the ordinary,” said Terri Ameri, director of clinical operations at the Othello Clinic. Most parents call with questions about the flu or RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), she said.
On a recent weekday, Kirsten Defaccio brought her 3-year-old daughter, Nellie, to the clinic, hoping to get her flu shot and update her COVID reminder. But because Nellie’s primary care provider is in Providence Swedish, Defaccio was told she would have to get a flu shot there for insurance purposes.
Defaccio was not happy.
“With ERs and doctors being so overwhelmed and busy with flu and COVID and RSV cases, it’s a parent’s worst nightmare not being able to have a place to take their child if they’re sick. “, she said. “And when you try to get vaccines to prevent it, it’s like roadblocks everywhere.”
In Seattle, some researchers have started sifting through new flu and RSV data from this season, though it’s still too early to tell how recent strains differ from earlier ones, said medical specialist Dr Helen Chu. of Infectious Diseases from UW Medicine who co-leads the Seattle Flu Study, which samples and tests for acute respiratory infections in the Puget Sound area.
There are signs that RSV cases are starting to level off, she said, but with state and King County data lagging due to hospital notification delays, it’s difficult to get an accurate image. But the number of flu continues to rise steadily.
There’s one notable difference that has already emerged this year, Chu said: Early research shows that influenza B – which is only transmitted by humans – appears to have virtually disappeared from the world, according to a paper she and other researchers published in October.
“When you take all of these measures – masking and distancing – and apply them, suddenly humans can no longer transmit influenza B and there is no other reservoir left,” Chu said.
It’s too early to say the strain is completely gone, she said, but it has yet to be detected in Washington this year.
“As time has passed and these COVID mitigation measures have been lifted, as expected, all other viruses have now returned,” Chu said. “Now I think people just aren’t interested in doing a lot of these things. We certainly know that as a group of measures put together, they work. … But that’s a pretty extreme thing to do to stop the viral spread, shut down school and work, and mask up all the time.
Fortunately, she said, it looks like some important reminders remain in place.
“Stay home when sick, mask up when you have symptoms, test before seeing loved ones who are vulnerable,” Chu said. “It’s the common sense things that people do now that they didn’t do before.”
She and other medical providers also continue to push residents to get their flu and COVID shots. It’s not too late, Chu said.
No RSV vaccine has been approved in the United States, but some relief is on the way.
Pfizer announced last month that its RSV maternal vaccine, given during pregnancy, protects infants from developing severe symptoms in the first six months of life. The drug company plans to seek U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for the vaccine by the end of the year, Pfizer said in early November.
In Europe, the first monoclonal antibody treatment against RSV, made by AstraZeneca and Sanofi, was approved last month. It has already been submitted to the FDA for approval.
“I think it’s just a matter of ‘Let’s get through this season’ because it might actually be the last season. [where infection numbers are so high]”, Chu said. “There is a chance that next year will be a pivotal year for RSV.”
Gollyhorn was discharged from hospital on Sunday afternoon.
Next year, Gollyhorn says, he will seriously consider getting the flu shot to avoid another week in the hospital, despite his fears about the vaccine.
“I was scared that I wouldn’t get out of that hospital,” he said. “I beg people not to take life for granted.”
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