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Bay Area children’s hospitals enact contingency plans for RSV surge

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As a surge in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cases sweeps across the Bay Area, the region’s children’s hospitals are enacting contingency plans to deal with an increase in patients. 

UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Mission Bay has erected a tent with seven additional beds, and the hospital’s Oakland location is using an annex with 12 extra beds. RSV may present as a mild cold in adults but can cause serious lung infections in young children, especially infants. Chief Medical Officer Joan Zoltanski said the hospital is used to seeing a surge in respiratory illnesses in the winter, but this large volume of cases is higher than normal and is also happening much earlier in the season.

Furthermore, she doesn’t expect the cases to level off anytime soon. Zoltanski said modeling shows that the Bay Area will still be in a surge until two weeks after Thanksgiving at least.

Stanford Medicine Children’s Health has also opened up another unit to deal with an increase in cases. “The overall number of hospitalizations is certainly as high as we’ve ever seen,” Dr. Alan Schroeder, a pediatric critical care physician at Stanford Medicine Children’s Health, said. “We have to be mindful that things could get worse and we’re putting our surge plans into place.” 

Still, Schroeder said he isn’t yet worried about a “tripledemic,” a word some medical professionals are using to warn of a particularly bad confluence of RSV, the flu and COVID-19 this season. Instead, he said, what’s more worrisome are the staffing issues, particularly among nurses and respiratory therapists, that could become apparent as cases rise. 

Zoltanski echoed the concern, saying UCSF is hiring more for both of those positions. 

A vaccine for RSV is in the works but likely won’t be available for at least a year in the U.S., though Schroeder said one would be “a game-changer.” Until then, experts recommend frequent hand washing, reducing exposure to sick people, and vaccination for both the flu and COVID-19. 

RSV can also be a risk for the elderly, so it’s important to keep sick kids away from grandparents, Schroeder said. 

While testing for COVID-19 can be good practice before large gatherings ahead of the holidays, both Schroeder and Zoltanski emphasized that there is no need to get a child tested for RSV just because they have cold symptoms. In fact, doing so if symptoms are mild can contribute to overwhelming the already strained pediatric health care system. “T​​here is nothing unique or magic about an RSV test,” Zoltanski said. 

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