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Virginia medical professionals warn of 'elevated' flu season

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Dr. Anthony Baffoe-Bonnie, medical director of infectious diseases at Carilion Clinic.

Amid unusually high rates of flu and other respiratory infections nationally and closer to home this year, medical experts are warning that a particularly severe flu season may be ahead.

The Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association released a joint statement earlier this week saying that a combination of both influenza and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) infection spikes have led to an alarming increase in patients seeking care.

“Emergency department and urgent care clinic visits involving patient diagnoses of RSV have quadrupled since early September and remain significantly elevated,” the statement said. “Visits for flu-like illness are also rising — for the week ending November 5, such visits are at least four times higher than in the same week for each of the past four years.”

Dr. Anthony W. Baffoe-Bonnie, the section chief on infectious disease for Carilion Health System, said that this year’s early flu spike is a troubling sign for the coming season — both in Southwest Virginia and in the rest of the U.S.

“It is elevated more than usual for this time of year,” Baffoe-Bonnie said. “The last time it was this elevated was in 2010-2011.”

The spike in infections has already impacted Southwest Virginia, leading to public school cancellations in Craig County and more recently, in Pulaski County, which called off Tuesday classes, citing a high number of respiratory infections among both students and staff.

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While school representatives for Salem, Roanoke city and Roanoke County public schools say they haven’t seen higher than usual infections so far, Baffoe-Bonnie said that it is important to note that this is still the early part of the flu season.

“These sorts of respiratory diseases love the colder weather that we see as the winter progresses,” Baffoe-Bonnie said.

The public health experts urge Virginians to get vaccinated for both influenza and COVID-19 as soon as possible. “It’s better late than never,” Baffoe-Bonnie said.

Other recommendations include wearing a mask while indoors where signficant numbers of people are present — especially for those at high risk of severe respiratory infections — and avoiding family holiday gatherings for if someone has symptoms of a respiratory infection, whether COVID-19 or any other.

Roanoke and New River valley hospitals have reported that, while they have seen more patients than usual, they are not at risk of reaching capacity in the near future.

Christopher Finley, a spokesman for LewisGale Health System, said that the hospitals have seen an influx in pediatric patients due to the recent spike in RSV infections, but that all four regional medical facilities were “… well equipped to care for these pediatric patients.”

However, with the worst of the flu season likely ahead, Baffoe-Bonnie said it’s important to get vaccinated as soon as possible to avoid overloading health care providers in the region.

“We don’t need to be seeing anybody that we don’t have to,” Baffoe-Bonnie said. “We do know things that can prevent infections from spiking.”

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