Tulsa city councilors briefed on RSV, influenza, and COVID as cases rise

TULSA, Okla. — The director of the Tulsa Health Department briefed Tulsa city councilors Wednesday on just how bad three illnesses are hitting the Tulsa metro area all at once.

Tulsa Health Department Director Dr. Bruce Dart said many area hospitals are nearly as busy as they were during certain points of the COVID pandemic because three illnesses are hitting at the same time, and two of them came earlier than ever before.

“We expect to see these viruses every year,” Dart said. “We don’t expect to see them this time of year, and we especially don’t expect to see our hospitals and our pediatric wards this time of year this full this early.”

Dart said COVID variants were already spreading around when the flu and RSV arrived extremely early, and the first flu deaths in Tulsa County happened very early in the season back in October.

“We saw deaths in October with flu, and it’s so incredibly early. It’s so unusual,” Dart said about how early and quickly the illnesses have taken hold across the country.

Dart said Tulsa is not alone in seeing the early arrival and the spread of three illnesses at once. He said Tulsa is experiencing the same thing the rest of the nation is.

“We are at the same level as the east and west coast and the Midwest,” Dart said.

What is concerning the most to health officials is the growing need for more pediatric hospital beds linked to RSV cases in small children such as babies and toddlers. While older children, teens, and adults can get RSV, their bodies are able to better fight it off similar to the common cold, but the young will struggle badly.

“It attacks the muscles they use to eat and breathe with,” Dart said. “That is why it’s urgent to get them care. They will most likely and usually do respond well to treatment, but you can’t wait until it’s time to take them to the emergency room.”

Pediatric beds were in such short supply at one point that the a few weeks ago the Oklahoma State Department of Health sent out an emergency authorization to all hospitals in the state allowing them to convert and open up any adult beds they may need into beds for pediatric patients. They can make the switch at their own discretion and based off their own needs.

Dart said beds are open, but the number varies day by day.

“I’ve never seen anything like that in my entire time doing this,” Dart said about the OSDH order and his years-long career as a public health official.

Dart said there are beds for those who need, but you should first seek out the help of your family physician or urgent care when symptoms first set in. He said in some cases waiting until you need the emergency room can be too late, especially for the young.

“All babies will cough this time of year,” Dart said. “It’s when that cough gets mucus-y or mucus-like is when you know you have a problem.”

Because all three illness present themselves in similar ways, it can be hard for someone without any medical training to tell what illness someone has right now, which is why seeking out medical attention at the first sign of symptoms is preferred right now.

For many, Dart said over the counter medicines can help manage most symptoms while you stay at home to rest and recover, but FOX23 found many grocery stores, big box stores, and pharmacies with cold and flu meds picked over. Some stores said there weren’t any extra supplies in the back to restock the shelves, and they were waiting for the next truck to come in with more supplies.

At no point did anyone in the council meeting mention the wearing of masks, and Dart said it would be outrageous for anyone to think putting a mask on an infant would be feasible.

Councilor Kara Joy McKee said she was urging all constituents to find outdoor celebrations for the holidays where the risk of spreading respiratory droplets would be greatly reduced, and in some cases, would be carried away in the wind.

Dart said what should be the most concerning in addition to the three illnesses is the further strain that is being put on the health care system.

“Many of these people haven’t had a real break since March 2020,” Dart said noting the month COVID arrived in Oklahoma.

“They’re tired. They haven’t had much time off, and I just worry for some of them, they’re going to burn out because many of them were already so close to that point already.”