An alarming number of Colorado children with the respiratory virus called RSV are filling emergency rooms and intensive care beds as the state experiences an “early and intense” start to the flu season, state health officials and Children’s Hospital Colorado warned Wednesday.
“It’s truly like nothing we’ve ever seen before at Children’s Hospital Colorado,” said Dr. Kevin Carney, a pediatric emergency physician and Children’s associate chief medical officer.
The hospital’s in-patient and ICU beds across the state are operating at or above maximum capacity, and emergency room and urgent care visits for respiratory illness are 30% higher than the busiest days of a normal flu season, which typically runs January through March.
Children’s is now postponing surgeries and other procedures in order to have the staff and space to treat children with RSV, the flu and COVID-19, he said.
Statewide, there’s a shortage of available pediatric intensive care beds, according to state health department officials who joined Children’s Hospital for a news conference. The number of available pediatric beds has hovered between zero and 5 the last several weeks, instead of the typical average of 22 open beds.
Children’s Hospital and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment held the news conference to warn parents and urge vaccinations after watching levels, especially for RSV, spike in recent weeks.
“What’s different this year is how early and severe this reference respiratory season has been for the children in our community,” Carney said. “Our emergency departments are seeing a record volume of patients.”
While RSV, which stands for respiratory syncytial virus, causes mild symptoms in most people, it can cause severe illness or even death in young children and older adults. Of the 554 people who have been hospitalized in the Denver area in the last few weeks, 95% were children. Health officials have counted 144 outbreaks statewide at schools and child care centers.
Infants and children under age 2 are most at risk for dangerous cases of RSV, as are people over age 65 or with lung issues. Colorado is seeing “unprecedented levels” of RSV transmission, said state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy.
She asked people to get vaccinated, both for the flu and COVID-19, and to stay home if they are sick, even with mild symptoms.
“A mild infection in me or you can translate to a life-threatening infection to a young child or an older adult,” she said.
The flu, COVID and RSV are all different illnesses, but it’s possibly for people to have more than one at the same time. The symptoms of RSV are runny nose, decrease in appetite, coughing, sneezing, fever and wheezing, which can make it difficult for parents to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and COVID.
The COVID-19 pandemic “disrupted” regular patterns for the respiratory virus season, pushing it back to early fall rather than winter. While the reasons aren’t entirely understood, it’s partly due to the health precautions taken during the pandemic —including isolation and masks — that also suppressed transmission of other respiratory illnesses, Herlihy said.
Health officials are seeing RSV spread during the summer and increase in the fall, and last year, saw an uptick in flu transmission late into the spring — both unusual timelines, she said.
“We really don’t fully understand, but it’s very clear that the pandemic has been disruptive to how these viruses are spread and when they’re spread,” Herlihy said.
Hospitalization numbers for influenza are still lower than typical peak levels, but they are higher at this point in the season than the most severe flu season on record in Colorado, which was in 2017-18, she said. Health officials said they are unsure when the illness might peak.
The number of doses of influenza vaccine given this year in Colorado are on par with 2021, but lower than 2020 levels, said Scott Bookman, director of public health response for the state health department.
“So we do have an opportunity here to increase our influenza vaccination rates as we head into this flu season,” he said.
Children’s Hospital officials encouraged parents to first check with their pediatrician if they are unsure whether their child needs to go to the emergency room. The state health department, meanwhile, is spreading word about the uptick in RSV and flu to schools, preschools and child care facilities.