Colorado has most normal flu, RSV, COVID season since pandemic began

A sign for flu and COVID-19 vaccinations is displayed at a pharmacy store in Palatine, Illinois, on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Colorado has finished its first relatively normal respiratory disease season since the pandemic began, with no unusually large or strange time frame in the illness.

But since COVID-19 is still in the mix, this new normal still means higher levels of severe illness and death than the state before 2020.

In the fall of 2020 and 2021, Colorado and the entire country saw large waves of COVID-19, but almost none of the common illnesses caused by flu and respiratory syncytial virus. RSV causes the common cold in most people, but can be serious in infants and older people, especially those who have other health problems.

In the fall of 2022, COVID-19 didn't cause as much devastation, but a surge in RSV sent an unusual number of Colorado children to hospitals, possibly because a large group of young children had not been infected while others around them were. People were infected. Taking respiratory precautions. That year's flu season also started unusually early.

This year, hospitalizations due to flu and RSV in Colorado increased in October and peaked in late December, said Dr. Michelle Barron, senior medical director of infection prevention and control at UCHealth. That's roughly the time when hospitals expect a surge in virus activity.

The state’s COVID-19 hospitalizations have followed suit, though they began increasing over the summer and peaked a few weeks before other viruses.

“I would never say 'normal,' because every time I say normal there's a new normal… but this was more typical than the recent respiratory virus season,” Barron said.

Yet even in relatively average seasons, large numbers of people fall ill.

Between October and early May, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported:

  • 6,333 COVID-19 hospitalised
  • 3,939 flu hospitalized
  • 3,828 RSV hospitalizations

Baron said the flu season this winter was not particularly severe in terms of the number of people hospitalized or the number of people who got sick. Although the number of people hospitalized could have been reduced if more people had gotten vaccinated against the respiratory illness, fatigue with talking about the virus has led to a decline in vaccinations, he said.

The state has had its mildest COVID-19 season to date, with 280 people hospitalized statewide at the peak in late November, compared to 1,847 hospitalized at the worst point in December 2020.

In contrast, flu has set its second-highest peak since the 2018-2019 season — although that period included two years with minimal flu activity.

It's more difficult to compare RSV over time, because Colorado's health department only started tracking statewide data this year. However, it has seen RSV in select Denver-area hospitals since at least 2018. This year's peak was the second-highest at that time, although hospitalization rates were a third lower than in the unusually severe 2022-2023 season.

COVID-19 killed far fewer people than last season, but still claimed 647 lives in Colorado between early October and late April. Three children died of the flu this season, and none died of RSV. The state does not track flu and RSV deaths in adults.

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