Seasonal illnesses strain providers

More people on the island – and in the entire state – are getting sick this season.

More people on the island – and in the entire state – are getting sick this season.

The flu, COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus, also known as RSV, have all been making the rounds.

According to the Washington State Department of Health, flu cases are rising quickly in the state and flu hospitalizations are at the highest rate in 10 years for this time of year.

Oak Harbor’s school district has seen an uptick in sickness, according to Communications Officer Sarah Foy.

Conor O’Brien, marketing manager and public records officer at WhidbeyHealth, said the hospital has seen a significant increase in illnesses in the community, primarily with seasonal flu and RSV.

Along with the high rates of sickness, Island County is suffering from a shortage of medical staff. Last week, walk-in clinics in Oak Harbor and Clinton were full with wait times reaching one to two hours.

“Two days last week we saw nearly 100 patients each day and on Friday we saw 75 in our emergency department,” O’Brien wrote in an email. “We estimate on a daily basis that we will see approximately 50-60 patients in our ED on a ‘standard’ day.”

Walk-in clinics have been temporarily closed on Sundays due to critical staffing needs.

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Dr. Howard Liebrand, health officer at Island County Public Health, said seasonal maladies are back with a vengeance after the pandemic kept people isolated and the sicknesses from spreading for two and a half years.

“We’re having the biggest year for RSV in a long time,” Liebrand said.

With influenza, it’s the same story.

“There’s been almost no circulating flu in the past two years,” he said.

Liebrand also thought there might be more hesitancy to receive a flu shot this year with all the negative attention surrounding vaccines.

As far as COVID-19 goes, Liebrand said numbers are not dropping and people should keep their boosters up to date, which is still the best way to combat the virus.

Unfortunately, there is no vaccine for RSV and no specific treatment. Liebrand said that when adults have cold symptoms, it is commonly RSV and they should take caution to not spread the illness. While it is often mild for adults, RSV can be serious for infants and young children.

“It often requires intensive care or at least stepped-up care and that’s not available in a lot of small, local hospitals,” he said.

Liebrand said that children with RSV have had to be transferred to off-island hospitals.

“At one point last week, the whole state was full and we had to ship a patient into Portland,” he said. “So it’s a big deal.”

This problem has been echoed throughout Washington.

“Our state’s pediatric health care system is overloaded with extremely high numbers of children with respiratory infections,” said Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett, chief science officer for the Department of Health. “Families urgently need to do everything they can to keep everyone healthy and avoid the need for health care, and flu vaccination is one of the most important prevention tools.”

The department is urging people to get vaccinated, wash their hands, stay home when they’re sick, sneeze or cough into the crook of the arm or a tissue to avoid getting germs on hands or in the air, avoid close contact with sick individuals and consider wearing a mask in crowded settings.

According to the Department of Health, the most common strain this year is influenza A, or H3N2, which typically causes more severe symptoms. All available flu vaccines provide protection against H3N2.

In a press release, the department strongly recommends everyone aged 6 months and older get the flu vaccine as soon as possible, especially with the amount of large get-togethers the holiday season brings. It takes two weeks for the vaccine to take effect. The vaccine can prevent serious complications and hospital care.

The flu vaccine is available at most pharmacies, health care providers’ offices and clinics.

“You don’t want to be the Grinch that steals Christmas from some of your family,” Liebrand said.