RSV surge stuns parents and strains providers, but doctors offer help


Doctors suspect the worst respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) season in years just ended, and the story of a child who had a serious respiratory infection provides a glimpse of what health care providers saw in the fall of 2022.

RSV cases peaked in mid-November, according to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, with RSV-associated hospitalizations in the United States among patients 0-4 years having maxed out five times higher than they were at the same time in 2021. These surges strained providers and left parents scrambling for care. Fortunately, pediatric hospitalizations appear to be subsiding.

In interviews, the parents of the child who had a severe case of RSV reflected on their son’s bout with the illness, and doctors described challenges to dealing with the surge in RSV cases this season. The physicians also offered advice on how recognize and respond to future cases of the virus.

Sebastian Witt’s story

“I didn’t even know what RSV was,” said Malte Witt, whose son, Sebastian, 2, was recently hospitalized for RSV in Denver.

Mr. Witt and his wife, Emily Witt, both 32, thought they were dealing with a typical cold until Sebastian’s condition dramatically deteriorated about 36 hours after symptom onset.

“He basically just slumped over and collapsed, coughing uncontrollably,” Mr. Witt said in an interview. “He couldn’t catch his breath.”

The Witts rushed Sebastian to the ED at Children’s Hospital Colorado, expecting to see a doctor immediately. Instead, they spent the night in an overcrowded waiting room alongside many other families in the same situation.

“There was no room for anyone to sit anywhere,” Mr. Witt said. “There were people sitting on the floor. I counted maybe six children hooked up to oxygen when we walked in.”

After waiting approximately 45 minutes, a nurse checked Sebastian’s oxygen saturation. The readings were 79%-83%. This range is significantly below thresholds for supplemental oxygen described by most pediatric guidelines, which range from 90 to 94%.

The nurse connected Sebastian to bottled oxygen in the waiting room, and a recheck 4 hours later showed that his oxygen saturation had improved.

But the improvement didn’t last.

“At roughly hour 10 in the waiting room – it was 4 in the morning – you could tell that Seb was exhausted, really not acting like himself,” Mr. Witt said. “We thought maybe it’s just late at night, he hasn’t really slept. But then Emily noticed that his oxygen tank had run out.”

Mr. Witt told a nurse, and after another check revealed low oxygen saturation, Sebastian was finally admitted.

Early RSV surge strains pediatric providers

With RSV-associated hospitalizations peaking at 48 per 100,000 children, Colorado has been among the states hardest hit by the virus. New Mexico – where hospitalizations peaked at 56.4 per 100,000 children – comes in second. Even in states like California, where hospitalization rates have been almost 10-fold lower than New Mexico, pediatric providers have been stretched to their limits.

Dean Blumberg, MD

Dr. Dean Blumberg

“Many hospitals are really being overwhelmed with admissions for RSV, both routine RSV – relatively mild hospitalizations with bronchiolitis – as well as kids in the ICU with more severe cases,” said Dean Blumberg, MD, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Health, Sacramento, said in an interview.

Dr. Blumberg believes the severity of the 2022-2023 RSV season is likely COVID related.

“All community-associated respiratory viral infections are out of whack because of the pandemic, and all the masking and social distancing that was occurring,” he said.

This may also explain why older kids are coming down with more severe cases of RSV.

“Some children are getting RSV for the first time as older children,” Dr. Blumberg said, noting that, historically, most children were infected in the first 2 years of life. “There are reports of children 3 or 4 years of age being admitted with their first episode of RSV because of the [COVID] pandemic.”

This year’s RSV season is also notable for arriving early, potentially catching the community off guard, according to Jennifer D. Kusma, MD, a primary care pediatrician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

“People who should have been protected often weren’t protected yet,” Dr. Kusma said in an interview.


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