Mom Brianne Price knew respiratory illnesses could be a concern because her baby was born prematurely. Then her other child, her 4-year-old boy, came home with a cough. Soon after, Price was calling a nurse help line.
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RSV, the flu and COVID can cause some similar symptoms, so it can be difficult to tell which one a person is infected with.
However, health officials say the same tactics people have used to ward off illness earlier in the pandemic are still the recommended line of defense.
“Make sure everybody’s washing their hands (and) wearing masks when feasible in enclosed areas with a lot of different people,” Dr. Kevin Carney, associate chief medical officer for Children's Hospital Colorado, said.
Another important step could be to get tested if a person is attending a gathering amid the holidays, especially for those at higher risk of illness, Dr. Rachel Herlihy, state epidemiologist, said.
Most flu hospitalizations occur among people 65 years and older, and most RSV hospitalizations are among those younger than 2, according to the state health department.
Asked whether the state would put out a mask-wearing advisory this year, Scott Bookman, a state official who oversees COVID-19 response, didn’t say. But he said: “Masks are an important tool for individual protection and spread of transmission.”
He encouraged the public to view the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s webpage that shows where the agency recommends mask wearing in indoor settings based on COVID spread.
The CDC gives recommendations by county based on the local level of COVID activity.
Mom Brianne Price knew respiratory illnesses could be a concern because her baby was born prematurely. Then her other child, her 4-year-old boy, came home with a cough. Soon after, Price was calling a nurse help line. Her baby also had something, except it was worse. Her baby had trouble breathing. It landed her baby in the hospital.
The girl, just shy of 6 months old, had a virus commonly called RSV. She was placed on oxygen.
The baby recovered after spending days in the hospital. Now Price, from the Littleton area, is sounding the alarm for other parents, hoping they take the spread of illnesses seriously.
“Keeping your kids home when they’re sick is super helpful,” Price said.
Her remarks came during a news conference that included Children’s Hospital Colorado officials. It turns out that her daughter was one of more than 1,400 RSV-related hospitalizations in the Denver metro area from Oct. 1 through late November, part of a season where RSV, respiratory syncytial virus, and other viruses, including the flu and COVID, are causing more infections, prompting concerns from public health officials.
At times in recent weeks, just two intensive-care hospital beds for children were available in the entire state of Colorado. Hospital departments took patients that they normally wouldn’t and health care professionals braced themselves for a marathon season that hopefully won’t put severe strains on hospitals, like those seen during the worst spikes of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Please note that some families with less urgent health concerns may experience longer wait times in our emergency departments,” an alert message on the Children's Hospital Colorado website says.
A cough or runny nose may not seem like cause for concern. But health officials want people to think twice about it and take extra precautions to protect their families, classmates, coworkers and neighbors.
“We know that a mild respiratory infection in one person can be potentially a deadly infection in someone else,” Dr. Rachel Herlihy, state epidemiologist, said.
Amid an earlier-than-usual — and more severe — RSV season, Children's Hospital Colorado saw record numbers of patients with respiratory illnesses in its emergency departments. By itself, health officials might manage the upsurge. But flu and COVID are also circulating, fueling concerns about stretched resources.
One children’s health official wasn’t sure how the combination of a holiday school break and holiday gatherings might affect the trends. But one thing’s for sure: Health care workers expect the situation to continue into the new year, said Dr. Kevin Carney, associate chief medical officer for Children's Hospital Colorado.
That’s even if RSV slows down — because the flu started ramping up in November, Carney said.
“We are pretty much mentally preparing to have no break between these respiratory infections,” Carney said, adding, “I don’t see a scenario in the next month or two where we don’t have very busy emergency departments and inpatient units.”
Then there’s COVID. Colorado listed 440 people as “currently hospitalized” with coronavirus the week of Nov. 29, with numbers trending upward. For instance, there were just 145 hospitalizations the week of Sept. 20.
The state also posted a seven-day average of eight deaths among COVID cases on Nov. 19, up from an average of three deaths about a month earlier.
But when it comes to kids, health officials are focused on RSV.
“For influenza, most of our hospitalizations have been among adults, and then we see really the inverse of that for RSV,” Herlihy said, emphasizing the risk to children, during a separate news conference.
Most children get an RSV infection by the time they are 2 years old, according to the state health department. Some infants and young children may be at higher risk for more-severe illness from RSV, such as bronchitis or pneumonia.
The illness is more pervasive this year because young children now have less built-up immunity, according to a University of Chicago Medicine article.
Earlier in the pandemic, due to masking and social distancing, young children were not exposed to common germs, according to the article. Now, some 1- and 2-year-olds are experiencing their first RSV infection, the article says.
Carney, the Children’s Hospital doctor, told news reporters his buildings are packed.
“Our hospital continues, at all of our sites, to be really functioning at 100% capacity in all of our units,” Carney said.
It is possible RSV cases have peaked, but the hospital is still contending with high numbers of patients — and it has seen a “significant uptick” in the number of patients showing up who have known influenza, Carney said.
It all adds up to mean that the end of respiratory illness season is a long way off, Carney said.
“It’s the million-dollar question what’s going to happen after Thanksgiving for us. Historically, we can sometimes count on when kids are out of school that infectious diseases will decrease,” Carney said.
But as people travel and get together with family and friends, viruses tend to spread, Carney added.
Colorado has seen 517 flu hospitalizations from Oct. 2 through Nov. 26, according to the state’s flu data webpage. And the flu season could be more severe than in recent years, officials say.
As of Nov. 17, there were only two pediatric intensive-care unit, or ICU, beds available in Colorado, according to the state health department.
More recently, there were still just two available pediatric ICU beds out of 94 in the state as of Nov. 29, the department told CCM.
“The number of hospital beds is dynamic and refers to staffed beds, not physical beds,” the department said in a statement. The number depends on how many qualified health care professionals are available to work those beds.
Hospitals have taken action to expand capacity, with adult hospitals “starting to admit teenagers into their adult ICUs that they previously wouldn’t have seen,” Scott Bookman, director of the state Division of Disease Control and Public Health Response, said.
“They are also starting to bring much younger patients into their neonatal intensive-care units that traditionally wouldn’t serve this population,” Bookman said.
He added: “We’re also seeing adult hospitals simply being able to hold onto many of these children at their facilities rather than needing to transfer them to a pediatric center.”
Children’s Hospital Colorado, a system with locations around the Denver metro area and in Colorado Springs, has asked for help from adult hospitals, Carney said.
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