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RSV surge spreads to DeKalb County amid statewide pediatric ICU shortage

Local experts weigh in on what’s driving the surge in respiratory syncytial virus and its spread in the community.

Pediatrician Dr. Blair Wright sets up an examination room for a patient visit Friday, Nov. 4, 2022, at Northwestern Medicine Valley West Hospital in Sandwich.

DeKALB – The spread of respiratory syncytial virus is on the rise in DeKalb County.

So much so, it’s sparked worried parents and their children to report en masse to hospital emergency rooms and pediatric offices for care.

The surge highlights what local experts said is an area of vulnerability for the state’s pediatric intensive care units as a shortage in bed availability is complicated by staffing challenges.

Mayuri Morker, a pediatrician with Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group in Sycamore, said she’s had recent pediatric patients flown to out-of-state hospitals as far away as Green Bay and Marshfield, Wisconsin, and to Iowa.

“We don’t see this improving anytime soon,” Morker said. “Our goal is to prevent kids from getting this bad as much as we can avoid because there’s going to be a shortage of pediatric beds for all of the winter season.”

Pediatrician Dr. Blair Wright (right) talks to Alexis Wooden, a medical assistant, Friday, Nov. 4, 2022, at Northwestern Medicine Valley West Hospital in Sandwich.

Jeremy Sliver, medical director of the Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital emergency department, said the number of pediatric patients with RSV about doubled over the past year.

“For the month of October, we probably transferred one patient a day, on average, for a respiratory illness,” Silver said. “Many of those would’ve been RSV positive.”

RSV is commonly seen as a respiratory virus causing mild, cold-like symptoms and is known to cause bronchitis and pneumonia in children younger than age 1, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Typically, the virus lasts a week or two.

Morker said it is more detrimental to babies than older kids as they are more likely view it as a cold.

While there is no preventive measure for RSV in most cases, experts encourage pediatric patients and their families to consider getting vaccinated against the flu and COVID-19.

Blair Wright, a pediatrician with Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group in Sandwich, said she is noticing more and more pediatric patients with RSV.

“I think it’s a return to normal with people not masking as often,” Wright said. “People are in the day care setting, the school setting with … fewer precautions. We’re just exposed to things like it used to be.”

Experts advise parents who suspect their child has come down with RSV to practice good hand hygiene, wipe down surfaces and avoid exposures.

Morker said RSV is spreading in the community sooner than experts had found in the past with flu season.

“Normally, RSV is our winter virus,” Morker said. “This we’ve been seeing going on for the last two months now since almost August. Since school year has started, we have seen an upsurge in all viral processes and RSV is one of them.”

Pediatrician Dr. Blair Wright sets up an examination room for a patient visit Friday, Nov. 4, 2022, at Northwestern Medicine Valley West Hospital in Sandwich.

Morker attributes the early start to the flu season to the easing of pandemic-era restrictions that were imposed by the government.

“Kids were not in school for a while,” Morker said. “We had mask mandates and distancing. Last year, we had no cases of influenza and very, very little RSV. But this year, everything is back to normal. We’ve relaxed precautions. Kids were not used to fighting these viruses that are just circling in the community at a much faster pace.”

Wright said there are two types of infections to watch out for: upper respiratory and lower respiratory.

Upper respiratory infections may consist of a fever, congestion or sniffles.

Wright said people are advised to use saline, blow their nose and take in fluid often should they need treatment in this case.

A lower respiratory infection may include exhibiting symptoms such as wheezing, coarse breathing sounds, work breathing or having tugging in between their ribs when they’re breathing.

Wright said these are the pediatric patients to keep a close eye on should they come down with RSV.

“Those kids are the ones that we’re hearing about who are getting hospitalized,” Wright said. “That can get a little more dangerous. Sometimes we need to treat that with oxygen.”

Silver acknowledged that concerns about a tripledemic are on the rise locally as they are nationally.

A tripledemic is defined by experts as a public health emergency born out of the collision between flu, COVID-19 and RSV and how it may put a strain on the healthcare system.

Silver said the concern is simply the amount of healthcare workers that are available to take care of the population.

“As you can imagine we have patients becoming sick with COVID, becoming sick with flu, becoming sick with RSV, those people then require resources that would otherwise be available for people with heart attacks, stroke and other severe medical illness,” he said.

When asked how people can protect themselves from the threat posed by a tripledemic, Silver said the answer is easer to pinpoint than some may realize.

“We can certainly mitigate that as a society by getting vaccinated, wearing masks, washing our hands and absolutely come to the emergency room if you feel you need to be seen,” he said.