Health Benefits

The ‘Tripledemic’ Threat of Flu, RSV, and COVID-19

As respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) surges in kids across the country, flu cases climb, and COVID-19 continues, some medical experts worry about a potential “tripledemic.” There’s no scientific definition for this term; it simply refers to a collision of RSV, flu, and COVID-19 to the extent that it might overwhelm hospitals and clinics. 

RSV is not a new virus, but the number of children getting sick—and particularly the number becoming seriously ill with RSV—has climbed quickly this fall and remains significantly higher than usual across California and the United States. 

Anyone can catch RSV, but it’s especially dangerous for infants, toddlers, and older adults. The virus clogs airways in the lungs, and the airways of young children are more easily blocked because they’re so small. In a typical year in the U.S., the virus kills about 14,000 adults 65 and older and up to 300 children under age 5. 

Doctors suspect that children who ordinarily would have been exposed to RSV over the last couple of years were not because of social distancing measures related to the pandemic. Many more kids are now being infected with RSV for the first time, so we are seeing very high levels of cases in ERs and hospitals across the country and here in California. 

There is no widely available vaccine available for RSV, so public health experts are encouraging parents to do whatever they can to protect their children’s health in other ways like wearing a mask, washing hands frequently, staying home when sick, and getting flu shots and COVID-19 boosters. 

The big question is whether RSV cases will start to decline as the winter flu season starts to pick up. 

Influenza activity in California has started with an earlier flu season than usual, and flu activity is “high” according to the CDC. In fact, only three states in the country currently have more flu activity than California. Additionally, COVID-19 activity is starting to increase and both COVID and flu are expected to increase in the coming months, further stretching California hospital resources for both adults and children. 

Infectious Windows for the ‘Triple Threat’ Viruses 

You may be wondering how long someone is contagious after they get sick. The following list may help answer some of these questions: 

  • Flu: Contagious for approximately 5-7 days after the start of symptoms. 
  • RSV: Contagious for approximately 3-8 days after the start of symptoms. 
  • COVID-19: Omicron infection typically lasts for 8-10 days. Some people are infectious for less, and some for more. The best way to know if you are infectious is to take an at-home test. 

Importance of Prevention 

Prevention is key to help stop the spread of respiratory viruses like COVID-19, flu, and RSV. You can take everyday actions that can stop the spread of respiratory viruses: 

  • Wear a mask in indoor public or crowded spaces. Wearing a mask can protect babies and young children who do not yet have immunity and are too young to wear a mask themselves.  
  • Wash hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and warm water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. 
  • Cough or sneeze into your elbow, arm, or disposable tissue. 
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. 
  • Get your flu shots and COVID vaccines/boosters. 
  • Stay away from people who are sick and stay home when sick. 

Although there’s no vaccine to protect against RSV, you can get your flu vaccine and COVID-19 vaccine and boosters through your CalPERS health plan. They are covered by your plan without any cost to you.