RSV surge in Will, Grundy counties contributing to statewide PICU shortage

Experts say less exposure to respiratory syncytial virus the past 2 years may be driving the surge.

This 1981 photo provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows an electron micrograph of Respiratory Syncytial Virus, also known as RSV.

Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox recently transferred two children with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) to out-of-state hospitals because a surge of RSV has contributed to a decrease in beds in pediatric intensive care units in Illinois.

Dr. Christopher Udovich, medical director at Silver Cross, said Thursday that only 6% of Illinois’ 289 PICU beds currently were available. In the past two weeks, Silver Cross transferred a child to a hospital in St. Louis, and transferred another child to a hospital in Milwaukee, Udovich said.

Udovich said hospitals across the U.S. are experiencing similar surges.

“This is not a Will County problem,” Udovich said.

Michael Mutterer, chief nursing officer and senior vice president of patient care services at Silver Cross, said the hospital had five RSV pediatric inpatients on Thursday. But the greater challenge is finding local hospitals that can provide a higher level of care for patients who need it, once Silver Cross treats them in the ER, he said.

Mutterer said he “feels horrible” that children are being transferred out of Illinois just so “they can get the right level of care.”

Julie O’Malley, nurse manager of pediatrics at Silver Cross, said the number of RSV pediatric patients at Silver Cross has tripled since August. And, from Oct. 1 to 25, 25 of those patients needed a higher level of respiratory care, which included oxygen, O’Malley said.

In 2021, only 30 pediatric patients required similar care for the entire year. O’Malley said most of those pediatric patients during the present surge are age 4 and younger.

Mutterer said pediatric doctors from Lurie Children’s Hospital are available “around-the-clock, seven days a week” to help care for pediatric patients and Silver Cross respiratory team has been “amazing” in caring for “these little pediatric patients.”

Although no vaccine for RSV is yet available, Mutterer encouraged people to get their flu and COVID-19 boosters to help protect against a triple pandemic of flu, COVID-19 and RSV.

“Do what you can to protect yourself,” Mutterer said.

‘We’re seeing more of this respiratory infection at an earlier time’

Morris Hospital also is seeing a higher amount of patients with RSV than is typical, including several who required hospitalization, according to Dr. Mark Gibson, a staff emergency room doctor at Morris Hospital.

Gibson said Morris Hospital typically sees people with RSV in the “January-February timeline” and currently was treating three children ages 5 and younger in the ER on Thursday morning.

“I think the main reason is because, in the last two years, we’ve all been masked,” Gibson said. “And people just haven’t been exposed to it, so they call it a gap. So now that we’re all back out and socializing and going back to school and going to weddings and family gatherings, we’re seeing more of this respiratory infection at an earlier time.”

Gibson said RSV is a common infection that most people have by age 2. Symptoms typically resemble mild cold symptoms. However children – and even adults – with certain underlying medical conditions may have more severe symptoms.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said symptoms of RSV typically show up within four to six days of a person being infected. Symptoms include runny nose, decreased appetite, coughing, sneezing, fever and wheezing.

Symptoms in very young babies may include irritability, trouble breathing and a decrease in activity, the CDC said. Trouble breathing and dehydration are the main reasons why people might require hospitalization, with the risk greatest in babies 6 months old or younger and in older adults, the CDC said.

People with weakened immune systems, chronic heart or lung disease, or neuromuscular disorders also may be at higher risk for complications from RSV, according to Edward-Elmhurst Health. Children with RSV can also develop pneumonia or bronchiolitis, Edward-Elmhurst Health said.

Dr. Kalisha Hill, regional chief medical officer at Ascension Saint Joseph – Joliet and Ascension Saint Mary – Kankakee hospitals, said St. Joe’s is seeing an increased number of both children and older adults with RSV.

Hill agreed that less exposure to the virus in the past two years may be contributing to the rise in RSV cases. Then, once children pick it up at day care and in school, they bring it home to their families.

“And then the families spread it,” Hill said.

‘We don’t see any sign of it letting up’

Hill said because St. Joe’s is a comprehensive acute care facility, it typically can care for hospitalized RSV patients. It has no shortage of beds and only transfers patients if it sees “intervention that requires an academic center.”

She said it’s also important for people to still test for COVID-19 when they have respiratory symptoms because the symptoms of COVID-19, RSV and flu can overlap.

“If you’re having symptoms – coughing, sneezing – stay away from people, wear masks when appropriate and do a lot of hand hygiene so you’re not spreading those germs to others,” Hill said.

Diane Harris, system director of children’s services, Edward-Elmhurst Health, said Edward Hospital in Naperville also is experiencing a high number of cases of RSV and other respiratory viruses in kids, especially kids 2 and younger.

“This started way back in late July, August, and it’s persisted,” Harris said. “We don’t see any sign of it letting up.”

Despite the shortage of beds, administration, doctors and nurses are working incredibly hard to meet the need “in a challenging situation,” including Edward nurses with pediatric experience stepping up to help out, Harris said.