TACOMA – A common childhood infection is sending kids to Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in record numbers.
Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is affecting infants and young children and putting those with compromised immune systems and underlying health conditions into the hospital’s Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.
Dr. Grant Keeney is medical director for quality and safety and an emergency room physician at Mary Bridge. Keeney said Thursday that RSV has struck early this year. While rhinovirus infections are still outnumbering RSV, it’s putting a strain on the health system.
“Just this week, since Monday, has probably been the busiest three days that I can remember,” said Keeney, who has worked at Mary Bridge eight years. “And probably on record.”
Early peak or just starting?
The question facing Mary Bridge and other health systems is whether the current RSV surge, which normally peaks in January or February, is a harbinger of a bigger wave or an early crescendo that will soon ease.
“I don’t think we know for sure what’s going to happen,” Keeney said.
Mary Bridge saw patients with RSV in June – an unusual time for the illness. Viral illnesses in the southern and eastern United States usually are one step ahead of the western part of the country, Keeney said. Watching numbers in those regions could serve as early warning for Washington state.
No patients at Mary Bridge have died from RSV, Keeney said.
All of Mary Bridge’s beds are fully staffed and at capacity, Keeney said. If demand increases, staffing will become an issue, he said.
Lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic have made the health system more prepared to deal with a sudden increase in demand. Keeney cited temporarily moving doctors who don’t normally deal with infectious diseases into different roles as one practice from COVID that could be repeated if RSV rates continue to climb.
Wait times in the emergency department have averaged 4 to 5 hours this week, according to MultiCare spokesperson Scott Thompson. Critically ill patients are seen immediately as they are all in all emergency departments.
An average of seven children are waiting in Mary Bridge’s emergency department for a bed at any given time, Thompson said.
Overall, 60% of emergency room visits are respiratory-related and 80% of kids admissions are for respiratory illnesses.
When and where to see a doc
Not all children who come to Mary Bridge’s emergency room need that level of care, Keeney said.
Keeney advises the use of parental instincts.
“If something doesn’t feel right, then reach out for advice,” he said. That can start with a call to a clinic, physician, nurse hotline or other medical resources staffed by professionals.
Breathing, Keeney said, is a major concern with RSV. Difficulty breathing, breathing rapidly or a change in color are red flags.
“That’s when you need to call 911 or come straight to the emergency department,” he said.
It doesn’t mean you necessarily need to take your child to Mary Bridge’s emergency department. Other emergency rooms around southwest Washington are fully equipped to handle pediatric patients, he said. In addition, those emergency departments consult regularly with physicians at Mary Bridge.
The prevention lessons learned or reinforced during the COVID-19 pandemic work well for RSV and other communicable diseases, Keeney said.
“We saw fewer respiratory illnesses, not just COVID, but RSV and flu during the past two years,” he said.
He recommends hand-washing, wearing masks, covering coughs and staying home when you’re sick.
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