RSV, a highly contagious respiratory virus, is bringing infants and toddlers to emergency rooms at an all-time level, putting hospitals under strain and signaling a difficult winter ahead. According to hospital experts, visits to emergency departments for young children with respiratory difficulties are now at an all-time high.
COVID-19 measures such as masking and social separation once helped prevent the virus’s transmission, but with many safeguards being abandoned, New York’s children are becoming ill. RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, is putting a record number of children under the age of five in the hospital and overcrowding pediatric departments.
“We’re seeing a far larger volume of patients than I’ve seen in 15 years here,” said Dr. James Schneider, chief of the pediatric critical care unit at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in Queens. “We’re seeing a lot more kids in this ICU than I’ve ever seen at one time.”
“It’s clearly causing a lot of extra work for physicians, nurses, and respiratory therapists, and we need to find alternative care space to offer the necessary quality of care for all the kids that need to be hospitalized,” Schneider added.
According to the CDC, RSV is a common virus that causes mild cold-like symptoms. While most people recover in a week or two, the virus can be fatal in newborns and the elderly. Only around 1% of the population suffers from severe symptoms.
This isn’t a problem in a typical year. However, there has been a significant backlog of RSV patients this year. Public health measures such as mask use and social separation have done their job in protecting individuals from infectious diseases over the last two years, according to doctors.
Immune systems are more vulnerable now that many of those safeguards have been abandoned.
“It’s just that we’re getting cohorts that haven’t been exposed in the previous several years, on top of this year’s cohort,” Jennifer Lighter, MD, hospital epidemiologist and pediatric infectious disease expert at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone, explained.
The surge is part of what doctors are calling a “tripledemic,” with RSV increasing at the same time as flu season arrives earlier and COVID cases climb as the temperature cools.
“The number of people becoming ill and requiring medical attention, particularly among small children under the age of five, has increased considerably in the last month,” said Dr. Jay Varma, director of the Cornell Center for Pandemic Prevention and Response.
“And if you just look at trips to emergency rooms, which is a very reasonable proxy for how unwell people are in the community, it’s already surpassed the rate of visits during the Omicron peak.”