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Pediatric RSV cases rising quickly, and earlier than usual

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reports 109 pediatric RSV-associated hospitalizations from Oct. 1-19 this year.

DENVER — Doctors say a respiratory virus they see every year showed up early this year, and is spreading quickly.

The CDC says respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a common virus and usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms.

But can be serious for little kids and babies.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reports 109 pediatric RSV-associated hospitalizations from Oct. 1-19 this year. That’s about double the pediatric hospitalizations from the same time last year: 55.

“We’ve seen about twice as many cases, year to date, as we did this time last year. Or the year before, for that matter,” said Dr. Reginald Washington, Chief Medical Officer for Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children in Denver. “And that’s mimicking what we see throughout the country. RSV will be very virulent, we believe, this winter, we believe.”

The numbers have stressed some hospitals, including one facility in Connecticut that is reportedly in talks with the National Guard and FEMA about adding a medical tent in the parking lot to manage the volume.

In Denver, Washington said his hospital hasn’t been overwhelmed, but they are prepared for the RSV numbers to keep rising.

“This is still within our capability for handling these cases, and we’re gearing up for more cases. We’re prepared to see an influx of not only RSV, but flu and even COVID,” he said. “One thing COVID has taught us is, we have to be prepared for an influx of patients. So we are ready if we have to set up contingency plans for an influx of patients, for kids or adults. So we're ready to increase our ability to care for these patients when and if that becomes necessary.”

“RSV season happens every year. No one's ever surprised to have RSV season. The difference is – we expect RSV season usually between December and March,” said Dr. Michael Milobsky, a pediatrician who owns Pediatrics at the Meadows in Castle Rock.

“What’s exceptional this year is how rapid a rise of RSV volume and severity were seeing at a much earlier time of year – when we’re not usually waiting for it," he said. 

Milobsky said his practice has seen a significant increase in the number of patient visits for illness recently.

“In the last 10 days, we’ve sent almost a dozen children to .. the ER,” he said. “Many had to be admitted for RSV bronchiolitis. Usually that’s because of low oxygen levels, elevated effort breathing, having trouble breathing, and trouble drinking and staying hydrated. Several have been in ICU. Most of those hospitalizations and admissions are very young children, usually under a year. and way more under 6 months.”

CDPHE shared historical trend data for RSV, dating back to the 2018-2019 season. The state said testing for RSV, influenza and COVID-19 has become more widespread, making it difficult to compare pre- and post-COVID seasons against each other. But the state said the hospitalization rate for RSV is currently higher than previous seasons at this same time.

Credit: CDPHE

“The amount of kids we’re testing isn’t going up. The amount of tests is going up because more kids are coming into the ER or hospital,” Washington said.

“During the pandemic, we massively upgraded our testing capacity,” Milobsky said.

“We have significant molecular and PCR capacity now for testing in the office. We [now] have the capacity to accurately test for RSV way more than [in previous] years. So yes, we are testing more and there’s way more kids sent.”

Reginald said parents should seek medical care for their child if they're struggling to breathe, or have a worsening fever.

"If your child has any of these symptoms, keep them home. Don’t go to daycare or school," he said. "RSV is very, very contagious. It's easy to pass along to other kids, teachers and other adults. We really advise people to stay home if kids have these symptoms."

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