Children’s hospitals are filling up amid an early rise in respiratory infections

Children’s hospitals are filling up amid an early rise in respiratory infections

An intensive care nurse is caring for a patient with respiratory syncytial virus.
Increase / An intensive care nurse cares for a patient with respiratory syncytial virus who is on ventilation in the pediatric intensive care unit of Olgahospital in Stuttgart, Germany.

Doctors across the country are reporting an early and dramatic rise in respiratory illnesses, and many children’s hospitals say they are running out of beds.

Nearly three-quarters of pediatric hospital beds are full, according to national data compiled by the Department of Health and Human Services. In some areas, pediatric hospitals are full, including Washington, DCand Boston areas.

Multiple viruses are behind the surge. As Ars previously reported, health officials warned of a increase in the number of adenoviruses and enteroviruses, both common childhood respiratory viruses. One enterovirus, called EV-D68, has been linked to a polio-like neurological condition called acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) in young children, and health officials are bracing for a subsequent surge in AFM cases. For now, the CDC did not experience such an increase this fall.

The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, point to a skyrocketing rate of RSV cases—respiratory syncytial (syn-SISH-uhl) virus. RSV is a common respiratory infection that causes cold-like symptoms in most people, but can become life-threatening in a small percentage of cases, especially in infants and young children with specific medical conditions.

RSV usually peaks later in the winter, with a peak in the last years before the pandemic in late December. But the circulation of the virus began to increase in late summer this year, and cases are now high, with the latest weekly case count since October 15 in over 7,000according to CDC data. The peak of RSV cases in 2021 was a weekly number of mostly around 4,000.

Flu-like activity started early with this year's data marked on the left by red triangles.
Increase / Flu-like activity started early with this year’s data marked on the left by red triangles.

And RSV isn’t the only virus getting an early start this fall. Flu circulation has also gotten off to an unusually strong start, and officials worry it could be a particularly bad flu season.

A surge in cold-weather viruses has prompted experts to double down on calls for flu shots and drugs to boost COVID-19. Although reported cases of COVID-19 show no signs of a dramatic increase, the use of at-home testing makes it difficult to interpret the official number of cases, and experts predict that a winter wave of COVID-19 is on the horizon, if not already underway.

“I think now is a reasonable time to not only get the COVID booster, the new bivalent vaccine, but also the flu vaccine,” former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in weekly interview on CBS News’ Face the nation. “Right now we have more and more flu cases. It looks like this could be a more aggressive flu season. The predominant strain right now is H3N2, and the vaccine seems to be a good match for that strain.” As such, the vaccine looks like it will be “quite protective,” he said, and now is “a good time to get it.”

As for why this fall and winter is turning into such a rough one, experts speculate that it’s a combination of pandemic-related disruptions. The global explosion of SARS-CoV-2 transmission, subsequent containment, and pandemic mitigation efforts have disrupted the normal transmission cycles of garden-variety respiratory viruses. In addition, the abandonment of common viruses has created a greater number of susceptible young children as well as adults with weakened immune systems from earlier exposures.

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