KOKOMO — An unprecedented summer spike in Howard County children contracting the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) has pediatricians worried the surge could add to the already growing number of hospitalizations due to COVID-19.
Dr. Eric O’Banion, a pediatrician at Community Howard Regional Health, said RSV is a common illness that traditionally spreads in winter among children, with cases hardly ever occurring in the summer. But not this year.
He said cases first started appearing in Kokomo in early summer and have ballooned in the past month, creating a “revolving door” of children being admitted to the hospital with serious infections from the virus. Nearly all of the children who have developed serious infections have been 9 months old or younger.
O’Banion said that with the rise of cases this summer, doctors are concerned the area could face an RSV epidemic this winter, when it’s common for the virus to spread.
“All of us physicians are worried it’s going to be an even more punishing winter, with COVID still cooking along and RSV hitting the kids even more than unusual,” he said.
Adding to the concern is the fact that many pediatric units around the state are already filling up with children infected with COVID-19 or other illnesses.
O’Banion said Community Howard has six beds in its unit. If those are all in use, parents may struggle to find other hospitals with room for kids who have serious infections from RSV.
“If we have a big blowup of patients, we’re going to run into having a problem because of COVID,” he said. “There’s nowhere to send them down in Indianapolis because of the backlog of beds down there. If those places are full, you’re kind of stuck.”
O’Banion said that between a third to a half of all children who go to Community Howard’s pediatric unit with RSV end up being admitted for serious respiratory infections caused by the virus, such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia. Some stay for a day, while others are admitted for close to a week.
“There’s not a rhyme or reason on how long they’ll stay,” he said. “It just depends on how their body reacts to the virus.”
However, O’Banion said, there are no firm numbers on how many RSV cases in total have been treated at the hospital, since doctors don’t usually test children who only have mild, cold-like symptoms.
Kokomo isn’t alone in experiencing a spike in RSV. Pediatric units across the country started reporting an increase in serious infections in late spring. In June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that pediatric hospitals in southern states had an unusual rise in children sickened with RSV.
Health care providers still don’t yet know what’s caused RSV to surge out of season, but O’Banion said he suspects the virus is hitting now as people have stopped wearing masks and physically distancing.
He said that the best way to protect children against the disease is to continue the same practices that help prevent COVID-19 from spreading.
“All the things that help prevent COVID also help prevent RSV,” O’Banion said. “We really need to bounce back to a little bit of physical distancing, and we definitely, definitely, definitely need to be wearing masks everywhere.”
He said that if RSV isn’t contained in the area, there are real concerns it could lead to a winter surge that could add pressure to pediatric units that are already stretched thin because of COVID-19.
“In the summer months, we can all spread out,” O’Banion said. “In my heart of hearts, I hope this all burns out early, but my fear is that as it gets colder and the weather brings us all closer together, it’s going to get worse.”
This article was made available through Hoosier State Press Association.