The ‘tripledemic’ of RSV, COVID and flu is causing school closures across the U.S.: ‘It's going to be a tough winter’

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An empty classroom at school with a purple-ish tint
School closures are happening across the country because of circulating respiratory viruses, including RSV, flu and COVID. (Photo: Getty Images)

Public health experts continue to warn about a trifecta of illnesses that are swirling in many parts of the country. Respiratory syncitial viruses (RSV) and flu cases are surging, causing a strain on children's hospital capacities around the U.S., while COVID-19 simmers in the background.

This so-called "tripledemic" is impacting schools as well. Reports are trickling in from around the country of schools needing to close, owing to outbreaks of illness. In Kentucky, the Williamstown Independent School District held a "Non-Traditional Instruction Day" on Nov. 4, "due to student and staff illness," district officials announced on Facebook.

The McNairy County school district in Tennessee was closed on the same day, "due to an increase in illness of student, faculty and staff," according to a Facebook post from the district. One person noted in the comments that "over half of the junior high cheer team is sick." Fellow Tennessee school district Polk County Schools closed on Monday "due to illness," officials simply announced in a Facebook statement.

These closures have been happening for weeks. North Carolina's Shining Rock Academy closed on Oct. 28 "due to an overwhelming amount of flu cases impacting student and staff attendance," officials said on Facebook. "By 1pm today, nearly 24% of the school was absent, primarily due to diagnosed cases of the flu, or flu-like symptoms," the post read, noting that "the day will be utilized to conduct a deep cleaning" of the campus.

Infectious disease experts say to expect more of the same as we head into winter. "We're in for a little bit of a rough winter in terms of respiratory viruses," Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life. "RSV has struck with a vengeance — ERs and hospitals are already at capacity in much of the country, and this will continue for a bit."

Flu season also picked up early, Russo says. "We're already seeing hospitalizations for flu on top of RSV, and, of course, we have COVID on top of this," he says.

Dr. Ian Michelow, division head of pediatric infectious diseases and immunology at Connecticut Children's Medical Center, agrees. "RSV is the worst we've seen in a long time. We're already strained under the burden of RSV," he tells Yahoo Life. "We're now seeing a large number of children with influenza. Literally overnight, it was an explosion of influenza."

RSV in particular is bad this year because most children typically get the virus before the age of 2, Russo explains. But, with COVID-19 prevention measures over the past few years, many children weren't exposed to the virus. Now, "there are now a greater number of children susceptible to RSV, and they're interacting with each other at school — and off we go," he says.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life that RSV season also "began earlier than its traditional start," noting that it's not clear when it will peak.

Experts say there are a lot of unknowns going into winter. "The question is, will these viruses come and then go, or are they going to persist together over much of the winter season?" Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. "That's something we just don't know yet."

Michelow says he's also concerned that a new COVID variant will rise up that will cause more severe illness. "That would be another problem — but so far, that hasn't happened," he says. However, that can quickly change, as new variants, such as BQ.1 and BQ.1.1, grow rapidly.

To protect yourself and your family, doctors stress the importance of getting vaccinated against the flu and making sure you're up to date on your COVID-19 vaccinations. (There isn't a vaccine for RSV, although several are currently in the works.) Schaffner also stresses the importance of good hand hygiene, which can help prevent the spread of RSV in particular. Wearing masks in crowded indoor spaces, when cases of respiratory viruses are high in your area, also "makes sense," Michelow says.

In general, "All the COVID-19 prevention measures will get it done to prevent these respiratory viruses," Russo says. And, he says, if someone in your household is sick, try to isolate them as best as possible to keep the rest of your household healthy.

Experts agree this winter could get intense. "It's going to be a tough winter," Russo says. Schaffner adds: "We hope this respiratory season will be brief — but we can't count on it."

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