Mirroring a National Trend, RSV Hospitalizations Rise in Vermont | Health Care | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Mirroring a National Trend, RSV Hospitalizations Rise in Vermont


Published October 25, 2022 at 7:23 p.m.

UVM Medical Center - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • UVM Medical Center
A virus other than COVID-19 has been grabbing national news headlines in recent days. Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, has led to an uptick in hospitalizations among children in dozens of states, including Vermont.

Doctors at the University of Vermont Medical Center are seeing triple the number of hospitalizations for respiratory illnesses in children this fall compared to what they'd normally see pre-pandemic at this time of year, according to Dr. Rebecca Bell, a pediatric critical care physician at the hospital.

The bulk of those hospitalizations are from RSV, while some are due to rhinovirus, another common viral infection. COVID-19 is not currently causing pediatric hospitalizations, Bell said.

UVM Medical Center — which has the only pediatric intensive care unit in the state — is currently
able to provide adequate care to all children being admitted, Bell said. But the trajectory of RSV is uncertain and, as flu season rapidly approaches, the hospital is planning for how to manage a higher volume of pediatric patients in the coming weeks and months. Those plans include making sure the hospital has enough staff trained to provide pediatric critical care and identifying additional spaces that could be used to care for young patients.

Though RSV isn't currently causing more severe health effects than it has in previous years, one striking change is the timing of the virus, Bell said. Before the pandemic, doctors typically didn't see RSV until December, with a peak in February and March. But the virus reared its head last fall and is back in higher numbers this fall.

Bell said that one explanation for the earlier arrival is that, pre-pandemic, all children were typically infected with RSV before they were two years old. But because of COVID-19 mitigation strategies in place for the past several years, there's now a larger population of infants, toddlers and preschoolers who've never been exposed to RSV and are getting it for the first time.

The virus is already wreaking havoc in other New England states. Connecticut Children's Medical Center in Hartford is asking the National Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to set up tents in order to expand its pediatric in-patient bed capacity. And in Massachusetts, where Tufts Medical Center recently discontinued pediatric inpatient services, some hospitals are being forced to send children to other states for medical care.

Though not everyone has heard of RSV, the virus is the top reason children are admitted to the hospital and the pediatric intensive care unit, according to Bell. It typically presents as a common cold, with symptoms such as a stuffy nose, congestion and cough.

But the virus, for which there is no vaccine, can make infants severely ill. Anywhere from 100 to 500 children under 5 die in the U.S. every year from RSV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Babies under 6 months old, and those who were born premature or have underlying lung disease, are at higher risk. 

Because RSV can cause inflammation in the nose, throat, lower airways and lungs, younger infants who are afflicted have a hard time clearing secretions, which may lead to difficulty feeding and breathing, Bell said. When that happens, babies may need to be hospitalized in order to get supplementary fluids or oxygen, or in some cases put on a ventilator.
Prior to the pandemic, UVM Medical Center's pediatric intensive care unit averaged around 80 admissions annually due to respiratory viral illness — most commonly RSV. But in March 2020, when COVID-19 mitigation strategies were put in place, hospital admissions for children with respiratory illnesses fell "abruptly and dramatically" and stayed low until the fall of 2021, Bell said. 

Both Bell and the Vermont Department of Health said the best way to avoid a strain on the health care system in the coming months is for those 6 months and older to get their influenza vaccine as soon as possible and for those 5 and older to make sure they have received their COVID-19 boosters. (Children under 5 are not yet eligible for a booster.) Both vaccines reduce the risk of infection and the severity of disease, Bell said.

COVID-19 boosters and flu shots are widely available through health care providers and pharmacies, and both are being offered at the state's walk-in clinics, a spokesperson for the Department of Health said. Find a full list of upcoming clinics here

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