Surging RSV cases leave children's hospitals bracing for unpredictable months ahead

RSV surge
Posted at 10:12 PM, Aug 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-12 23:22:42-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — While adult hospitals are filling up with COVID patients, children's hospitals are dealing with a different virus.

"We are also seeing respiratory illnesses this summer in July and August that we've never seen in the summertime before or never seen on that scale. We usually see them in the dead of winter," said Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey during a press conference last week.

Respiratory Syncytial Virus, or RSV, has filled patient rooms across the state.

"It's a virus that infects young children, usually kids under two, and it causes a lot of wheezing and respiratory distress and those kids often times have to go to the hospital and need treatment for that," said Piercey.

The RSV surge coupled with typical summer trauma injuries and increased COVID patients are keeping hospitals like Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital busy.

"We know that during the height of the pandemic when we had our full measures in place with social distancing and mask-wearing that we had a dramatic decrease in RSV and other respiratory viruses such as influenza in the winter," said Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital, Dr. James Antoon. He'sgone entire summers without ever seeing a single pediatric case of RSV.

"As we opened up this spring with less social distancing and less mask-wearing, we saw an increase in this RSV," said Antoon. "Right now we're seeing far more RSV in the hospital than we are COVID- whether that changes with school openings or not and with this Delta variant is yet to be seen."

It's unclear why RSV is infecting children and not other winter viruses, but it has some pediatricians concerned.

"COVID is also circulating around and having both COVID and RSV likely results in more severe illnesses in children, it's also unclear whether we're just set up for a really tough winter with RSV, influenza and COVID," said Antoon.

With so many unknowns, the hospital is doing its best to prepare for the future. "We are preparing for the worst and we are preparing our staffing and our schedules and our hospital just in case it is going to be a challenging winter season for children," said Antoon.

The vast majority of children with RSV have mild symptoms. Antoon said those who are most likely to get it severely have underlying conditions or were born prematurely. He adds there's no distinguishing between RSV and COVID based on symptoms alone, the only way to know is to get tested.