For the media

Hospitals brace for the possibility of a ‘tripledemic’

By The Health News Team | October 28, 2022
Parent taking child's temperature

Whether you call it a “tripledemic” or a “surge upon a surge upon a surge,” combining respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), influenza (flu) and COVID-19 sounds like a miserable proposition. Unfortunately, it’s what hospitals across the country are preparing for.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), RSV, flu and COVID-19 are caused by different viruses, but there are several similarities between the three. They share common symptoms, affect the respiratory system, are contagious, and can cause mild to severe illness.

While all three viruses can cause serious illness in older adults, RSV, a common respiratory virus, is more likely to cause severe illness in small children. In fact, it is the most common cause of bronchiolitis, the inflammation of lung airways, and pneumonia in infants.

According to public health experts, an overwhelming number of cases of the three illnesses could be disastrous. Some hospitals, they fear, might not have the resources to care for the increased number of severely ill patients.

“We’re already experiencing a surge in RSV cases, anticipating a higher than normal flu season this year, and coping with an underlying pandemic,” says Dr. Jyotu Sandhu, a family medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “Normally, about 50% of the population receive a flu shot, leaving an additional 50% who don’t get vaccinated, along with a whole population that was not exposed to last year’s strains due to COVID mitigation efforts. Now, we’ve got a tidal wave of RSV and flu just as new COVID-19 variants are increasing our case numbers.”

Vaccines can help prevent two of the illnesses
The good news is, people age 6 months and older can receive safe and effective vaccines for both the flu and COVID-19 to prevent severe illness, hospitalization and death. This offers a solution for lightening the load of illness in each region if everyone who can get vaccinated does so.

In fact, the CDC reports that the flu vaccine has been shown to reduce the risk of going to the doctor with the flu by 40% to 60%. Flu vaccination among adults was also associated with a 26% lower risk of intensive care unit (ICU) admission and a 31% lower risk of death from flu compared to people who were unvaccinated.

What’s more, the COVID-19 vaccines have proven to be extremely safe and effective. The vaccines, when paired with a bivalent booster shot for eligible age groups, remain highly effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalization or worse.

“It is so important to share the message that vaccination can protect you from severe illness and help local health care systems avoid being overwhelmed,” Dr. Sandhu says. “It is vital that everyone who is eligible gets a COVID-19 vaccine, a COVID vaccine booster, and a flu vaccine to avoid what they’re calling a ‘tripledemic.’”

According to the CDC, to receive a COVID-19 vaccine booster, it must be at least two months since your primary vaccination was completed or two months since you received a booster dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. If you have not yet received your annual flu vaccine, both the flu shot and the COVID-19 vaccine booster can be administered at the same time, though he recommends receiving the shots in different arms.

Additionally, you should not get a booster or flu shot if you are currently sick. If you have cold-like symptoms, or have received a positive flu or COVID-19 test result, wait to be vaccinated until you have recovered from your illness and have met the guidelines for discontinuing isolation.

How to prevent RSV
While there is no vaccine to protect against RSV, like COVID and flu, RSV is spread when someone with the virus coughs or sneezes. The virus can also survive on surfaces, such as doorknobs and handrails, and is shared through direct physical contact.

Therefore, you can protect yourself from all three viruses by following some of the same precautions:

  • Avoid people who are sick.

  • Thoroughly wash your hands often with soap and water.

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

  • Regularly clean contaminated surfaces.

  • Improve ventilation and air filtration in indoor spaces.

  • Avoid crowded indoor spaces.

  • Consider wearing a face mask in public, indoor locations.

The CDC also recommends practicing other good health habits. This includes getting plenty of sleep, being physically active, managing stress, drinking plenty of fluids and eating nutritious food.

Treating RSV, flu or COVID
If you have cold-like symptoms, stay home, consider wearing a high-quality face mask around others, and cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your upper shirt sleeve — never use your hands. Avoid close contact with infants and other high-risk people, such as people who are immunocompromised and older adults.

Over-the-counter medications, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, may help to reduce fever, headaches and body aches. And it is important to stay hydrated and get plenty of rest.

You should also talk with your doctor about testing for flu and COVID-19. Knowing if you are infected with a virus allows you to take care of yourself, receive treatment when appropriate, and take action to reduce the chance that you will infect others. However, if you or a loved one — especially an infant or older adult — are having severe breathing problems or other serious symptoms, do not hesitate to call 911 or go immediately to an emergency room for care.

“Hospitals across the country are already showing signs that they can’t handle the sheer numbers of seriously ill patients, so we’re advising people to stay safe and prevent RSV, flu and COVID-19 infection through vaccination and precautions before they become a greater problem,” Dr. Sandhu says. “They’re all very real, very active and happening concurrently. We have to take them all seriously.”

Learn more about how to get flu shots and COVID-19 vaccines in San Diego.

For the news media: To talk with Dr. Sandhu about flu, RSV and COVID-19, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at

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