News - McHenry County

More McHenry County babies, toddlers sick with respiratory viruses, earlier in the season

‘Anybody under the age of 3 has never seen pre-pandemic viruses, so the babies are sicker,’ a Huntley doctor says

Dr. Sara Qazi looks at a Child's chest x-ray Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, at Northwest Medicine Huntley Hospital.  Area hospital are seeing an increase in children with upper respiratory illnesses.

McHenry County doctors have seen an increased number of toddlers and babies sick with upper respiratory illnesses, which typically peak in the winter but have been appearing months earlier than normal, local doctors said.

The trend is likely another side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Dr. Sara Qazi, site leader for Lurie Children’s Outreach Program at Northwestern Medicine Huntley Hospital.

Now that masks are off, doctors are seeing increases in upper respiratory viruses, especially in very young children, she said.

“Anybody under the age of 3 has never seen pre-pandemic viruses, so the babies are sicker,” Qazi said. “... These babies are more susceptible to catching illnesses they are suddenly being exposed to. They don’t have that slow buildup of immunity, and they are getting more sick than they otherwise would have.”

The respiratory syncytial virus, commonly known as RSV, is a respiratory tract infection that affects the lungs and breathing passages. If not caught within the first few days, it could lead to an infant being hospitalized, doctors said.

The infections have not led to high hospitalization rates in McHenry County, Illinois Department of Public Health spokesman Mike Claffey said, though off-season spikes in illnesses prompted the department to email hospitals across the state at the beginning of September, asking them to ensure their bed counts were accurate in the statewide database.

“We wanted to raise awareness that we were seeing this trend and putting folks on notice,” Claffey said. “We wanted to be able to track it as we move into the fall. We want to encourage parents to get the flu vaccine as soon as possible to protect themselves from a serious outbreak of influenza.”

RSV was among the illnesses that spiked during the late summer and early fall the last two years, despite normally peaking in the winter, Qazi said, noting that epidemiologists have been tracking these viruses since the pandemic began.

It could be five years before epidemiologists and doctors know the full impact the lack of natural immunity has had on young children because there hasn’t been a pandemic like COVID-19 before, she said.

Children’s illnesses are typically cyclical, Qazi said, but the last two years have not been following historical trends.

“This particular wave has been coming and going since 2020 pandemic era,” Qazi said. “We are not surprised RSV has been acting out of its general nature. … This is not shocking to us when there is a pandemic.”

During the 2020-21 winter, physicians saw no flu or RSV. “It went away,” Qazi said. But when summer 2021 rolled around, they “saw RSV in the summer for the first time.”

The peak number of RSV cases had been climbing in the years leading up to the pandemic before plummeting ahead of winter 2020, according to IDPH data. Cases began climbing again in summer 2021, but that year’s peak remained lower than winter 2019-20.

The McHenry County Department of Health does not track RSV cases unless there are clusters reported, department officials said.

Friendship House, a day care in Crystal Lake, saw its first cases of RSV during the summer and had about five or six by the end of summer, Executive Director Cheryl Rudd said. That’s the earliest Rudd has seen the respiratory illnesses show up in her nearly 30 years in child care.

“[COVID-19] threw everybody a curve ball,” Rudd said. “This seemed a little early. We got our first case, and I was like ‘What?’ ”

The virus is contagious, so Friendship House immediately tells the parents, and if there are any symptoms, the children are out the prescribed amount of time, Rudd said. If a child has RSV, Rudd said she “immediately” sends a message to all parents letting them know.

Rudd said she keeps close watch over the children in her care, encouraging lots of proper hand washing – singing ABCs twice and scrubbing tops and bottoms – and, even though it is difficult with babies and toddlers, washing whatever they put in their mouths.

“There is not a whole lot you can do with little ones,” Rudd said. “They don’t know how to cover a cough and everything goes in their mouth. ... We do the best that we can to try and keep everything as healthy as possible.”

Qazi said all viruses are especially hard on children today who are now about two and three years old because they were born just before or during the pandemic. Since they were born during a time when everyone was “hunkered down“ when no one was visiting or leaving their homes, the babies didn’t develop their own natural immune systems.

Now those kids are out and about in the world, their siblings are in school, and they are being exposed to the viruses without their own natural defense and getting very sick, Qazi said.

“So that is what happened, and [RSV] just kind of now has become a summer bug for us,” Qazi said.

Qazi said she has been working in pediatrics for “a long time” and she “never saw summer RSV.”

Because of the abnormal pattern in these illnesses, Qazi now tests children with a “triple swab,” which swabs the baby’s nose for COVID-19, influenza and RSV. But sometimes even those three illnesses come back negative and the baby is just sick with a common cold virus or the rhinovirus.

Signs that it is time to take a child to the emergency department include if they stop eating. This typically happens because the infant cannot breathe, she said, adding RSV typically peaks about the fourth day. Qazi also encourages parents who may be concerned their child is getting sicker to first call or request an online appointment with their pediatrician.

McHenry County isn’t out of the woods when it comes to viruses of any kind, be it COVID-19, influenza or RSV, both Qazi and Rudd said.

“The future is unsure,” Rudd said. “The only thing I can say is we will be ready for whatever comes down the road. We just expect the unexpected. That is what we do. We are just hoping from our standpoint that we have things in place.”