How UI Health Care monitors respiratory virus season
All year round, University of Iowa Health Care works to better understand disease trends in Iowa and beyond. During certain periods of the year, the focus turns to defending against microscopic pathogens that cause influenza-like illnesses like the flu, COVID-19, and RSV.
A team of UI Health Care experts, including a dedicated team of epidemiologists, are responsible for continually monitoring the prevalence of viruses in the region and developing response plans to enhance protections for patients and employees.
Recent increases in respiratory virus activity have prompted UI Health Care to temporarily enhance face mask and visitor guidelines to better protect the health of patients and their families, visitors, and employees.
Monitoring the situation
Making well-informed decisions on how to defend against influenza-like illnesses requires UI Health Care to track data from a variety of internal and external sources that monitor the prevalence of respiratory viruses. These sources include data from hospital epidemiology and county health departments and virus surveillance conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services.
Hospital epidemiologist Karen Brust, MD, says many community members may already see the signs of an uptick of illnesses within their own social circles.
“Sometimes simply looking at whether our friends and colleagues are getting sick can be a primary indicator as to what we’re dealing with,” she says. “From a more data-driven perspective, we’ll look at how influenza-like illnesses increase with respect to outpatient visits, emergency department visits, and we look at hospitalization data.”
Brust notes that national trends can also help predict when cases may peak in the community. While it’s not an exact science and no one can predict exactly when or how severe a respiratory virus season will be, there are years of understanding that show southern states tend to peak first, often just a few weeks ahead of Iowa. This offers an opportunity to forecast what could occur here, including which virus strains are most prevalent, which age groups are most affected, and how effective the flu vaccine may be year to year.
Setting the threshold
Last winter, providers saw an unusual, early surge of RSV that stressed hospital resources across the U.S. This presented a new challenge for how hospitals manage their capacity and readiness for potential surges. That experience prompted epidemiologists to monitor how all three major viruses (flu, COVID, and RSV) were circulating in the community this year.
With each surge of influenza-like illnesses, experts gain a better understanding of how to improve the health system’s ability to address future surges effectively and safely. UI Health Care set several thresholds to determine when additional safety protocols—such as masking in certain areas and limiting visitors—need to be implemented. In recent weeks, cases of influenza-like illnesses have climbed to moderate levels of community spread, an indicator that additional infection prevention measures need to be implemented.
"We have been anticipating this uptick in flu, COVID, and RSV activity, and have been planning our response to protect our vulnerable patients and our staff,” says Derek Zhorne, MD, associate chief medical officer of UI Stead Family Children's Hospital. “Reintroducing masks in certain patient areas is one strategy that can help prevent transmission of respiratory viruses.”
The best bet to get through respiratory virus season without getting sick is to use several layers of protection, Brust adds.
“First and most importantly, get vaccinated against the flu and COVID-19—and RSV for certain eligible populations,” she says. “Other things that keep people healthy include washing hands regularly, avoiding crowds, and masking when in indoor spaces.”