A surge of RSV infections is straining capacity at N.H. hospitals
A surge in cases of RSV, a respiratory infection that can be especially serious in infants, is straining hospital capacity in New Hampshire.
No pediatric ICU beds were available in New Hampshire this week, and surrounding states are seeing similar surges.
“The sheer numbers of children coming in have been somewhat overwhelming,” Dr. Neil Meehan, the chief physician executive at Exeter Hospital, said during a virtual panel discussion Wednesday.
A cold-like infection, respiratory syncytial virus is mild for most people, but sometimes causes more severe respiratory illness in infants and very young children.
Kids typically catch it by age 2, but many youngsters weren’t exposed to common viruses over the past two years due to COVID-related mitigation measures. Experts say that’s one reason RSV is surging around the country right now.
With beds in short supply across New England, Meehan said community hospitals like his are having to treat children they would normally send elsewhere for more complex care. Exeter Hospital is stocking up on supplies for supplemental oxygen and more advanced respiratory support, and is talking about treating kids on adult floors if space runs out.
In the North Country, Littleton Regional Healthcare is seeing a similar trend.
“We've seen a dramatic increase in our pediatric patients who are presenting to either our urgent care or emergency department,” said Vice President of Patient Care and Chief Nursing Officer Koren Superchi. “We've had more pediatric admissions in the last month than we've had in the last year.”
RSV can spread through respiratory droplets, direct contact or touching a surface with the virus on it. Most children will experience mild cold-like symptoms that go away in a week or two.
Some infants can develop more serious complications, including pneumonia or bronchiolitis, an inflammation of airways in the lungs. Children with weakened immune systems and older adults are also at higher risk.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that people with very young or vulnerable children take basic precautions like hand-washing, sanitizing surfaces, covering coughs and keeping them away from adults or other children who are sick. Parents should seek medical attention if an infant is struggling to breathe.
The RSV surge comes on top of staffing shortages, COVID-19 and what’s expected to be the worst flu season in several years. Meehan and Superchi said those factors — along with patients waiting for psychiatric beds and difficulty discharging patients to long-term care facilities, which are also understaffed — have strained hospital capacity.
Dr. Aalok Khole, an infectious disease doctor at Cheshire Medical Center in Keene, said COVID levels are relatively low right now, but could rise in the coming weeks as people travel and gather for the holidays. He said COVID boosters, flu shots and masking are important preventive measures to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed with respiratory disease this winter.
“It’s still around and the pandemic’s not really over,” he said. “Now throw another two viruses into the mix and you have a bigger problem at hand.”