Alabama pediatric hospitals battle wave of viral illnesses: ‘Records are being set every day’
An early surge in viral illnesses, mainly influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), pushed Alabama’s children in Birmingham to capacity and caused long patient waits in the emergency department.
“We see families waiting 8, 9 or 10 hours,” said Dr. Alicia Webb, an emergency room physician.
The hospital activated additional staff and transformed other parts of the hospital into treatment areas to cope with the influx of patients. Webb said the hospital has had seasonal spikes before, but this fall’s numbers are unlike anything they’ve seen before.
“We’re seeing unprecedented numbers of patients,” Webb said. “We’re setting records every day.”
To reduce stress in the hospital, Webb urged parents to seek care at a primary care or emergency room for mild symptoms, such as a fever. Emergency care should only be used if the child is having difficulty breathing or is having difficulty waking up.
Influenza and RSV circulate in the community. In most patients, RSV causes mild cold symptoms, but it can be serious for young babies and the elderly.
Webb said the current increase is greater than any the hospital has seen during the COVID pandemic. Although COVID is still circulating, it is not as much of a factor in the current increase as other respiratory viruses. The seasonal surge in the virus usually peaks in January, she said, and doctors are concerned about the number of patients they are already seeing in October.
The flu is on the rise across the country. According to to supervision by the Alabama Department of Public Health, the number of reported flu cases is already as high as last year’s peak and rising. They report on all areas of the country significant flu activity.
South Alabama is also experiencing an increase in viral illnesses. Deborah Browning, interim administrator at US Children’s and Women’s Health Hospital in Mobile, said the volume is higher than normal.
“We are not experiencing a shortage of beds at this time,” Browning said. “However, we are closely monitoring resources and the spread of disease within the community.”
During the summer, staff at America’s Health Children’s and Women’s Hospital saw a large number of patients with rhinovirus/enterovirus, said Dr. Benjamin Estrada, professor of pediatrics at the Whiddon College of Medicine at the University of South Alabama. Those cases have declined, but doctors are now treating a spike in flu cases.
“Because of the mitigation of COVID-19, many young children have never been exposed to multiple seasonal respiratory viruses such as RSV and influenza, implying that they are immunologically naïve to these viruses,” Estrada said.
Estrada said he expects the number of children admitted for respiratory illness to continue to rise.
“Typically, these two viruses (influenza and RSV) don’t peak until later in the fall and early winter,” Estrada said. “It’s worrying that these numbers are increasing so quickly this early in the season. In terms of COVID-19, we have seen a very significant drop from 13% two months ago to less than 1% now, but we should not let our guard down as it is expected that we could see another wave of COVID-19 in the next two to three months .”
Doctors at both hospitals urged parents to get flu and COVID vaccines for their children and to keep them home from school or daycare if they have symptoms such as fever, cough and runny nose. Experts from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urge people to cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze and to wash their hands thoroughly and regularly with soap and water.
Most importantly, Webb urged parents to seek medical help first at primary care or urgent care clinics to conserve emergency room capacity.
“It is imperative that families only use 911 in an emergency,” she said.
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