Thanksgiving night went smoothly at Jay Gollyhorn’s Seattle apartment.
His youngest son and his son’s fiancée were visiting from Vancouver, Washington, and staying for the week. But the next morning, the symptoms settled in.
“It hit all three of us at the same time,” the 63-year-old said in an interview from a hospital bed. He spent the rest of the weekend battling bouts of vomiting and intense body aches.
When a dizzy Gollyhorn had trouble standing on his own Monday morning, his son took him to Seattle’s VA Medical Center on Beacon Hill. He tested positive for influenza A.
Flu season has hit the United States harder and earlier than usual when health officials are calling a “tridemic” of multiple respiratory viruses at once. Though infections usually start ramping up around December or January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed at least 44 states are already reporting high or very high flu activity.
Most of us have likely been knocked out by a cold or the flu recently, or know someone who has. Now, medical providers and public health experts are hoping the experience will motivate Washingtonians to take mitigation measures to heart as more holiday celebrations near.
Washington’s overwhelming flu season has marched on, hitting infants and older adults particularly hard and filling hospital beds with the most patients the state has seen at this point in the season since 2019. As of Friday, 13 Washingtonians, including two children, had died from influenza-related illnesses, according to the state Department of Health.
In King County, at least three long-term care facilities reported flu outbreaks within the past week, county data shows. As of the end of November, visits for influenza-like illnesses made up about 15.5% of all emergency department visits in the county — compared with about 2.5% in 2019.
For Gollyhorn, his hospital experience has begun to change his mind about prevention measures. He hasn’t gotten a flu shot in decades, souring on the idea of vaccines after having a bad reaction to a swine flu shot, part of a notorious mass vaccine rollout in the 1970s.
Now, he said, he’s having second thoughts — especially after he was forced to miss his youngest son’s wedding on Thursday.
One of Gollyhorn’s other sons lived the ceremony for him, but he was heartbroken not to be there in person.
Don’t be like me. Don’t be one of these people who can’t swallow their pride,” Gollyhorn said Friday. “I mean, look what it cost me yesterday. That’s something I can’t get back.”
Gollyhorn was hoping to be discharged over the weekend, but said “every inch of [his] body still hurts.” He also has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, emphysema and asthma, making it even harder to breathe at times.
“I’ll get up and go to the bathroom, and I’m out of breath,” he said.
At Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic, run by Seattle Children’s, triage volumes have been “off the charts,” said Terri Ameri, director of clinical operations at the Othello clinic. Most parents are calling with questions about the flu or RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), she said.
On a recent weekday, Kirsten Defaccio brought her 3-year-old daughter, Nellie, to the clinic, hoping to get both her flu shot and an updated COVID booster. But because Nellie’s primary care provider is at Providence Swedish, Defaccio was told she’d have to get her flu shot there for insurance purposes.
Defaccio wasn’t happy.
“With the ERs and doctors being so overrun and busy with flu cases and COVID and RSV, it’s a parent’s nightmare not worst to be able to have a place to take your kid if they’re sick,” she said. And when you’re trying to get vaccines to prevent it, it’s like road blocks everywhere.
In Seattle, some researchers have started to wade through this season’s new flu and RSV data, though it’s still too early to say how recent strains differ from past ones, said Dr. Helen Chu, a UW Medicine infectious disease physician who co-leads the Seattle Flu Study, which samples and tests acute respiratory infections in the Puget Sound area.
There are some signs RSV cases are starting to stabilize, she said, though because state and King County data is lagging due to delayed reporting from hospitals, it’s difficult to get an accurate picture. But flu numbers are still rising steadily.
There is one noticeable difference that’s already emerged this year, Chu said: Early research shows influenza B — which is only transmitted by humans — appears to have mostly disappeared from the world, according to a paper she and other researchers published in October.
“When you take all these measures — masking and distancing — and put them to use, then suddenly humans can’t transmit influenza B anymore and there’s no other reservoir,” Chu said.
It’s too early to say the strain is completely gone, she said, but it has yet to be detected in Washington this year.
“As time has passed and those COVID mitigation measures have lifted, predictably, all of the other viruses have now come back,” Chu said. Now, I think people are just not interested in doing a lot of these things. We certainly know that as a group of measures all bundled together, they work. … But it’s a pretty extreme thing to do to stop viral spread, to shut down school and work, and mask all the time.”
Fortunately, she said, it appears some important reminders are sticking.
“Stay home when sick, mask when symptomatic, test before you see loved ones who are vulnerable,” Chu said. “Those are the common sense things people are doing now that they weren’t doing before.”
She and other medical providers also continue to push residents to get their flu and COVID shots. It’s not too late, Chu said.
No RSV vaccines have been approved in the United States, but some relief is on its way.
Pfizer announced last month that its maternal RSV vaccine, given during pregnancy, protects infants from developing severe symptoms during the first six months of their life. The pharmaceutical company plans to apply for US Food and Drug Administration approval of the vaccine by the end of the year, Pfizer said in early November.
In Europe, the first RSV monoclonal antibody treatment, made by AstraZeneca and Sanofi, was approved last month. It’s already been submitted to the FDA for licensing.
“I think it’s just a matter of, ‘Let’s just get through this season,’ because it might actually be the last season.” [where infection numbers are so high]Chu said. “There is a chance that next year could be a pivotal year for RSV.”
Gollyhorn was discharged from the hospital Sunday afternoon.
Next year, Gollyhorn says, he’ll seriously consider getting his flu shot to prevent another week in the hospital, despite his vaccine fears.
“I was concerned I wasn’t going to walk out of this hospital,” he said. “I’m begging people not to take life for granted.”