RSV is Surging; Cases of Flu, COVID Are On the Rise. Should We Be Wearing Masks?

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At 10 a.m., top health officials in Illinois and Chicago will give an update on 2022 flu season for adults and kids, and offer guidance ahead of projected rise in cases. We'll stream the update live in the player above.

Health experts in Chicago and across the country since October have been expressing concern that an "explosion" of respiratory viruses -- RSV, influenza and COVID -- would start to appear this fall and winter as cases of each continue to rise.

"With the combination of the disappearance of mitigation measures, the early influenza and RSV season that we are already witnessing, I fully expect to see an explosion of influenza, RSV, COVID, and other respiratory viral illnesses, this fall and winter," said Dr. Sharon Welbel, director of Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology at Cook County Health said last month.

And so far, those predictions seem to be ringing true.

The Illinois Department of Public Health told NBC Chicago Monday that pediatric ICU beds are almost full, with only 4% availability statewide due to cases of children needing treatment for respiratory syncytial virsus (RSV), a respiratory virus that doesn't typically peak until late-December through mid-February.

"We’re being kind of overwhelmed by the RSV cases. We’re probably at about three to five times our usual normal cases," said Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck, chief operating officer of the Cook County Department of Public Health.

And with Cook County among several places in the Chicago area now under an elevated COVID alert level, as well as flu activity in Illinois rising, health experts are becoming more uneasy about what's the come.

"My concern is as COVID really takes off and as the flu really takes off that it is really going to continue to stretch our hospital capacity," said Dr. Allison Arwady, the public health commissioner for the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Although Illinois does not have a statewide mask mandate, Arwady during a Facebook Live on Tuesday said she is choosing to wear one in public places.

“I have continued to wear a mask in settings where I want to show my care for others,” she said. “I’ve been encouraging of anybody who chooses to mask because I think it’s a sign of caring for others.”

Under current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, residents who live in counties that are seeing “high transmission levels” of COVID are encouraged to wear masks.

While no Illinois county is currently at that threshold, there are numerous counties that are now at a “medium transmission” level, including McHenry, Lake, DuPage, Cook, Grundy and Will counties.

Arwady says that a mask mandate wouldn’t be explored unless there was a “significant threat” to the health care system. However, she says that masking indoors now -- especially for those who are experiencing any type of illness -- is probably a good idea.

“If your child is sick, even if it’s a cold, we’d like you to have them wear a mask right now,” she said. “That helps decrease the spread…of influenza, and the masks help with risk of RSV.”

Arwady also encouraged parents to think of masks the way they think of “umbrellas,” only used when conditions call for it.

“It’s not realistic, just given how many respiratory viruses there are, that kids are always going to be able to stay at home,” Arwady noted. "But if they are able to put a mask on again, think of it like an umbrella. You don’t have to do it all the time, but you have it when you need it.”

Flu activity in the state is also at a “high level,” according to experts, leading to concerns of a potential “tripledemic” that could also include the COVID virus.

New variants of that virus are currently starting to spread in Illinois and nationwide, with some concern that they could not only evade immunity from previous strains, but also that they could render specific antibody therapies obsolete, experts say.

Still, the average number of new cases in Illinois has largely remained steady in recent weeks, with the state now averaging just under 2,000 new cases of COVID per day.

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