Steamboat seeing 10 times more flu cases than last year — just as medical officials warned |

Steamboat seeing 10 times more flu cases than last year — just as medical officials warned

While masks have not been required for a long time, medical professionals say wearing one can still help prevent the spread of respiratory viruses like influenza, COVID-19 and RSV.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center is seeing 10 times more influenza cases now than this time last year, signaling the heightened flu season medical professionals warned about has arrived.

In addition to flu, which is seeing an earlier-than-typical spike, other illnesses like respiratory syncytial virus, commonly called RSV, and still evolving variants of COVID-19 are circulating as well.

“Not one of us doesn’t know someone who’s currently sick,” said Lauren Bryan, infection prevention program manager at the hospital. “It’s hitting really early, really hard, kind of like we anticipated it would, but feels bad in the moment.”

Flu is reaching more people now than it has at this time of year in each of the last seven years, and the current caseload is far outpacing numbers for each of the last two years. Health experts attribute decreases in flu and other respiratory illnesses in the last two years to precautions being taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 that limited exposure.

That lack of exposure could be part of why these illnesses have roared back so strong this year, Bryan said.

Pretty much all cases of flu currently are considered flu A, which Bryan said generally comes earlier in flu season, leads to more severe cases and in turn, more hospitalizations. Since Oct. 2, 517 Coloradans have been hospitalized with flu, with 222 of those being reported to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment last week.

“We often look towards Australia to judge what our flu season is going to be like,” said Dr. Brian Harrington, Routt County’s chief medical officer. “Australia had one of their worst seasons in 10 years, with the early prevalence of flu and higher cases, and I think that’s what we’re seeing statewide and nationally.”

This slide depicts influenza trends since 2016, and where things are so far this year. Though still early in flu season, cases are outpacing other recent years.
Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment/Courtesy photo

While cases are generally flu A right now, Bryan said that has little influence on how flu B will play out, which typically comes closer to spring and is generally less severe. Health officials stressed getting the flu vaccine early this year and Bryan encouraged anyone that hasn’t had it yet to get a flu shot.

“For flu A, (this year’s flu shot) is an excellent match,” Bryan said. “It’s not too late. It does take two weeks to fully kick in, but this is a great risk reduction tactic that you can take.”

While flu is the predominant respiratory virus right now, flu-like symptoms could signal COVID-19, RSV or rhinovirus too, the last of which causes the common cold. UCHealth and other local providers are offering tests that can check patients for flu, RSV and COVID-19 with just one swab.

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“All of them present with fever, all of them present with sore throat and all present with congestion,” Bryan said. “It’s really hard to differentiate, so short of getting tested, you just got to stay home when you are sick.”

Bryan said someone with the flu is typically contagious for seven days after symptoms start and for COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends five days to quarantine and five additional days wearing a mask. For RSV, it can really depend, as some children can be contagious for months.

Adults can get RSV too, even though it is typically thought of as a disease that impacts the very young the most, as it is this year. Through Nov. 26 this year, nearly 1,300 children under 18 have been hospitalized with RSV in just the five-county Denver Metro area, with more than half of those being children under the age of 2, according to CDPHE. RSV data isn’t collected at a statewide level.

“The more severe outcomes tend to be in our very young like premature babies, young infants,” said Roberta Smith, Routt County’s Public Health Director. “And on the other end of the spectrum, elderly adults can also see severe effects from RSV.”

Also in the mix is COVID-19, which Bryan said is transitioning between two subvariants of omicron that have been able to resist some treatments doctors had been using like the monoclonal antibodies offered locally. That said, Bryan said Paxlovid, the pill treatment, still seems to work well.

“We continue to periodically have people hospitalized with COVID,” Harrington said. “Hospitalizations is one of our firmest parameters for COVID at any given time and our hospitalizations in Colorado have increased, which is not surprising.”

Colorado’s mobile vaccine bus will return to Routt County in December and will have the gamut of COVID-19 vaccines as well as flu shots available for free. It will make stops at the Ponds in Steamboat on Dec. 15 and Dec. 18 and in the Steamboat Walmart parking lot on Dec. 16. The bus will be available from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. for each of the locations.

“Respiratory season is upon us for sure,” Smith said. “It’s all the same messages, particularly staying home if you’re sick. … All of those key public health measures are ones that we use for influenza, RSV, rhinoviruses, all of our cold viruses and of course, COVID-19.”

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