An early rise in RSV cases in children is stressing some hospitals

The nation is experiencing an unusually early spike in cases of respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, among children, straining hospitals.


what you should Know

  • The nation is experiencing an unusually early spike in cases of respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, among children, straining hospitals
  • According to CDC data, which represents just 9% of the population, there were more than 7,300 cases of RSV during the week of October 15, more than double the number a month earlier and the most seen in two years
  • Meanwhile, about three-quarters of the nation’s pediatric hospital beds are full — also a two-year high — according to the Department of Health and Human Services, though the department did not specify why
  • Many doctors and health officials attribute the surge in RSV cases to children being isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic and not exposed to germs that help strengthen the immune system

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which represents just 9% of the population, there were more than 7,300 cases of RSV during the week of Oct. 15, more than double the number a month earlier and the most seen in two years. Meanwhile, about three-quarters of the nation’s pediatric hospital beds are full — also a two-year high — according to the Department of Health and Human Services, although the department did not specify why.

RSV is a common virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms. Most people recover in a week or two, but the virus can cause serious illness, especially in babies, other young children, and the elderly. According to the CDC, the virus kills 100 to 300 children ages 5 and younger and hospitalized more than 58,000 children in that age group each year.

Typically, RSV infections peak late in the winter, but as early as this year, according to various media reports:

  • Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford is so overwhelmed that it is considering calling on the National Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to build a field hospital outside its main facility. “I’ve been doing this for a long time, I’ve been at Connecticut Children’s for 25 years, and I’ve never seen this level of surge — especially of RSV — coming into our hospital,” Dr. Juan Salazar, executive vice president and chief medical officer, told CNN.
  • Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta set up an emergency tent in August to deal with the influx of cases of respiratory illnesses, including RSV.
  • Children’s hospitals in the Washington, DC and Baltimore areas are at or near capacity.
  • Dr. Russell Migita of Seattle Children’s Hospital said his hospital is seeing “unprecedented volumes” of RSV cases.
  • And at Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas, doctors say they treat about 300 RSV patients each day, taking up nearly half of the intensive care beds.

Many doctors and health officials attribute the surge in RSV cases to children who were isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic and were not exposed to germs that help strengthen the immune system.

“The kids, who are 3 now, didn’t get sick their first winter. The kids, who are 2, didn’t get sick their first winter. “Kids who are 1 are getting sick right now when they should be getting sick, so there’s a three-year cohort of kids who don’t have immunity built up from a previous infection and they’re all getting sick at once,” said Dr. Scott Krugman, deputy chairman of pediatrics at Sinai Hospital, to WBAL-TV in Baltimore.

While children who are infected in day care centers or schools may only develop a mild case, they can carry the virus at home and infect others who are more vulnerable.

For example, Steven Balka told CNN that his 4-year-old daughter, Trinity, was the first to catch RSV, and days later, his 2-month-old son, Adrian, was also infected. Trinity recovered, but Adrian was hospitalized in the intensive care unit at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston for the past week.

Although the focus has largely been on children, RSV can be dangerous to older adults as well, causing 14,000 deaths and 177,000 hospitalizations annually among Americans age 65 and older, according to the CDC.

Symptoms of RSV include a runny nose, decreased appetite, cough, sneezing, fever, and wheezing. It can be difficult to distinguish RSV symptoms from cold symptoms.

The virus can spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes and viral droplets get into someone’s eyes, nose or mouth; when someone touches a surface that has the virus on it and then touches their face before washing their hands; and when there is direct contact with the virus, such as when someone kisses the face of an infected child.

There is no vaccine against the virus, although there is a preventive drug given to high-risk babies during RSV season.

Experts recommend good hygiene to prevent contracting and spreading RSV, including by:

  • Wash your hands often and keep your hands away from your face.
  • Covering coughs and sneezes.
  • Cleaning and disinfection of surfaces.
  • Staying home when you feel sick.

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