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RSV, COVID, and Other Illnesses Are Overwhelming Hospitals


The respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) has come back earlier than usual. The virus has also infected more people than expected, leading to more patients putting and putting a strain on hospitals.

Viruses normally “spread out over time” according to Céline Gounder, a professor at New York University Grossman School of Medicine. RSV infections are happening all at once, leading to a backlog in the medical system. Some believe elective surgeries could be placed on hold like they were at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. These procedures are scheduled ahead of time and are not life-threatening. Like in 2020, doctor’s offices and emergency rooms could be filled with patients and overburdened with calls. Ever since the beginning of the pandemic, the coronavirus has been causing shortages of beds and resources.

RSV Most Harmful To Children

Courtesy of Tony Webster (Flickr CC0)

Most people experience symptoms of a cold during this time of year. RSV is one virus that can cause these symptoms. It is more dangerous for young children since adults have developed enough to survive the infection. Children under one year are more likely to need oxygen and assistance since they have smaller airways than adults. Inflammation is more damaging for this group; the virus makes it difficult for them to breathe. These children can develop a cough, have a runny nose, and fever if infected. RSV is one of the main causes of infant hospitalization. It claims the lives of 100 to 500 children out of the 58,000 sent to the hospital annually.

It is “almost impossible” to tell the difference between RSV and other viruses according to Thomas Murray, a specialist in pediatric infectious disease. The virus travels through surfaces instead of in droplets like COVID-19. Other signs of RSV in children are constant coughing, irritation, and not feeding well. A more serious case of the virus will show signs of “pulling,” indicating a struggle to breathe. Like with the coronavirus, the elderly are also affected by the illness. Even still, hospitals are prioritizing resources for their pediatric wings, filling them with as many infected children as needed.

A Blessing and A Curse

Medical experts are glad people are social distancing, but the practice does have a negative effect on some young people. Children who grew up during the pandemic do not have the needed experience with viruses to help build strong immune systems. Staying inside lowered people’s exposure to germs, but it also weakens the body’s defense against diseases. Our interactions with viruses help us develop the biological defenses needed to survive the flu season. Hospitals are looking outside their own state for pediatric beds according to Elizabeth Mack working in South Carolina. In her critical care unit, she regularly gets calls asking about her center’s availability from all over the country.

The children’s hospitals in this country are drowning right now.

Mack and others expected RSV season to begin in October, but this year cases began to emerge as early as August. The pandemic has brought changes in the ways and times the flu and RSV appear and act. Some experts fear “we may have a tridemic” of respiratory illnesses infecting people at the same time.

How to Deal with RSV

Courtesy of Eric Allix Rogers (Flickr CC0)

There is no vaccine for the illness at the moment. A rapid antigen test exists but unlike coronavirus tests, it can not be taken at home. Gounder assures that after half a century, researchers are closer than ever to finding a treatment. She expects a vaccine to be available to five-year-olds and younger within the next five years. The remedy could be received by infected children directly or through people who are carrying a child. Another treatment being used is the drug Palivizumab (or Synagis). The antibody treatment is given to infants before the RSV season. However, a more active solution like a vaccine is preferred by doctors. They help the body produce protection of its own against illnesses instead of relying on medicinal treatments.

Medical professionals like Murray and Gounder advise people to sanitize areas and things that get touched the most on a daily basis. These include toys, counters and sinks, and doorknobs. Additionally, it is recommended that people wash their hands and get medical care when they are not feeling well.

Written by Chiagozie Onyewuchi


The Washington Post: Hospitals are worried about child RSV this year. Here’s what to know. by Ben Brasch
CNN Health: A common respiratory virus is spreading at unusually high levels, overwhelming children’s hospitals. Here’s what parents need to know; by Jen Christensen and Raenu Charles
The Wall Street Journal: Surge in Pediatric Respiratory Viruses, Including RSV, Strains Children’s Hospitals; by Joseph De Avila and Brianna Abbott

Featured, First Inset, and Top Image Courtesy of Tony Webster’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Second Inset Image Courtesy of Eric Allix Rogers’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License


Cathrine Osborne, DM

Infectious Disease Physician

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