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Idaho hospitals taking on more babies, toddlers with RSV

The surge in RSV hospitalizations was delayed in Idaho, but it has begun, according to hospital officials. (Courtesy of U.S. Centers for Disease and Prevention)
The surge in RSV hospitalizations was delayed in Idaho, but it has begun, according to hospital officials. (Courtesy of U.S. Centers for Disease and Prevention)

RSV off-schedule this year, adding to a stew of respiratory viruses

It only took a week for Idaho hospital officials to stop wondering when RSV would make its way here.

Respiratory syncytial virus is very common, infecting most people by the time they reach kindergarten. For most children and adults, RSV causes mild illness. But it can become severe in babies and toddlers, whose smaller airways are more easily overcome by congestion and inflammation.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, RSV and influenza seasons arrived in Idaho during the late fall and winter months and stretched into spring.

But as the public relaxed measures to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, that allowed other respiratory pathogens to make a resurgence — RSV, enterovirus, rhinoviruses, parainfluenza and previously existing coronaviruses, in addition to influenza.

RSV has been surging nationwide, putting more strain on hospitals that continue to struggle with staff shortages.

“We expected this would happen,” said Dr. Kenneth Bramwell, St. Luke’s Children’s system medical director. “It wasn’t (hitting Idaho hospitals) last week, but it is now.”

Idaho recently crossed a threshold that can signal the arrival of RSV season — with 3% of RSV tests coming back positive, as of the most recent week of data from Idaho’s Division of Public Health.

Idaho laboratories have reported 69 cases statewide since late spring. However, a very large share of RSV cases are never tested.

While RSV season may be off-schedule this year, the virus doesn’t seem to be causing worse symptoms than in the past, Bramwell said.

“Outside of the COVID years, we would see this every winter. RSV is the most notorious virus, I would say, for causing hospitalizations,” he said. “The numbers of infants and toddlers that are needing to be hospitalized is the problem.”

Bramwell said there are few hospitals in the Treasure Valley region — and within a radius of hundreds of miles of Boise — that admit severely ill infants and children. When pediatric intensive care units run out of staffed, available beds, patients must be sent to other hospitals, such as in Utah or Washington.

There are currently no vaccines available to prevent RSV, although recent clinical trials have shown promise.

For now, Bramwell recommends parents keep babies and children up-to-date on immunizations so they are protected from other circulating viruses: the flu and COVID-19. (Pertussis, or whooping cough, is another vaccine-preventable virus that can cause severe disease in babies.)

He also recommends staying home when sick, wearing a mask outside the home when sick, and practicing good hand hygiene.

“We’re dealing with a lot of different viruses, and it looks like that will be the case for the foreseeable future,” he said.

What to do if your baby or toddler catches RSV, or has RSV symptoms including a runny nose or cough? Bramwell recommends watching the child closely for signs they might be struggling to breathe or becoming dehydrated. These signs include:

  • trouble feeding
  • not making wet diapers
  • not showing the usual amount of activity
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