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Hospitals have few beds as RSV surges

Hospitals across the metro area are sounding the alarm about RSV as emergency room departments become increasingly crowded with kids coming in for urgent care.

DENVER — Hospitals across the Denver metro area are sounding the alarm about Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) as emergency rooms become increasingly crowded with kids coming in for urgent care.

RSV can cause mild cold symptoms but can also turn serious for infants, toddlers, and older adults. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates anywhere from 1-3% of kids under the age of one end up in the hospital because of RSV. 

This year pediatric hospitals say the RSV surge is like nothing they've seen before. 

How long will the surge last? 

Dr. Reginald Washington with the HealthOne system anticipates RSV cases will keep climbing for several weeks. Because this virus typically peaks between January and March, he expects it will stick around that long. He just isn't sure at what level. 

"We don't have time to think about those issues," Washington said. "We have to deal with what we are seeing presently." 

Dr. Kevin Carney with Children's Hospital Colorado had a similar forecast. 

"We are hoping to reach a peak soon," he said. "Obviously it still puts us in a tight bind from a hospital capacity standpoint. We are preparing for weeks to months of capacity challenges in inpatient units and emergency room departments. RSV will start going down in the near future, but the flu is right behind it." 

Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state epidemiologist, said the COVID factors needs to be taken into account. 

"I think all the respiratory viruses are unpredictable. There are typical patterns we saw but we also know the pandemic threw things off quite a bit. We would love to see a peak in RSV soon, and historically in previous seasons RSV levels tend to stay high for several weeks," she said.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment expects their modeling for the trajectory of RSV to be complete closer to the end of the month. 

What are health care workers seeing? 

Carney had a message for people struggling with the virus, knowing the stress some of them are going through. 

"We don't expect parents, even myself, to look at a child and tell the difference between the flu, versus, RSV, the common cold or COVID," Carney said. 

"We don't want parents to feel like they are on their own with no resources," he added. 

Carney said wait times can extend hours in their emergency rooms. When wait times are long, health care workers are doing rounds in the emergency waiting room to check on families, knowing that each minutes feels like an hour for families waiting for care. 

Washington said every day they are seeing more people in the emergency room than the day before. 

"There's been a dramatic uptick in children presenting to the emergency room and need to be admitted to the hospital," he said. 

While there is capacity at HealthOne's three pediatric emergency rooms, Washington said what capacity looks like changes minute to minute. 

Are COVID processes being brought back? 

Washington said they were able to take advantage of what they learned during COVID. 

"We had the advantage of taking care of COVID patients, mostly adults in that peak pandemic. We have a center, per say, set up where we look at all of this daily, look at supplies, staffing," he said. 

UCHealth opened up some beds for teens to help out neighboring Children's Hospital Colorado, saying they helped UCHealth at the height of the pandemic. In a release they wrote: 

UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora has opened its intensive care and medical inpatient units to teens to help ease crowding at neighboring Children's Hospital Colorado.

The crush of patients at children's hospitals is similar to the March, 2020 influx of COVID-19 patients at hospitals that serve adults.

Typically, providers at University of Colorado Hospital care for adults, while children and teens receive care at children's hospitals. During the worst days of the pandemic, providers at Children's Hospital Colorado had space to care for some young adults who otherwise might have received care at hospitals for adults. Now, the trend has flipped.

In response to RSV cases, flu and COVID, the Colorado health system also activated the Combined Hospital Transfer Center, which was created during the pandemic. 

Doctors want families to know they are here to support and help, no matter how busy the hospitals are. 

They are also reminding people to utilize nursing hotlines, and to call their pediatricians and family doctors to assess how their kids are doing.

RELATED: Respiratory diseases are on the rise in Colorado, state health department says

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