Is RSV bad this year? Yes. Adult hospitals are stepping up to help.

Nov. 7, 2022
A sick little girl lays on her mom's lap. There are high cases of RSV this year in children.
Is RSV bad this year? Unfortunately, the answer is “yes.” Children’s hospitals are caring for so many sick patients that hospitals for adults are stepping up to assist. Photo: Getty Images.

RSV is so bad this year that sick kids are inundating children’s hospitals around the country, prompting doctors at hospitals for adults to assist by caring for some teens.

UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora has opened its intensive care and medical inpatient units to teens to help ease crowding at neighboring Children’s Hospital Colorado.

The crush of patients at children’s hospitals is similar to the March, 2020 influx of COVID-19 patients at hospitals that serve adults.

Typically, providers at University of Colorado Hospital care for adults, while children and teens receive care at children’s hospitals. During the worst days of the pandemic, providers at Children’s Hospital Colorado had space to care for some young adults who otherwise might have received care at hospitals for adults.

Now, the trend has flipped.

“We were in trouble then. Now they’re in dire straits, and we’re able to help,” said Dr. Michelle Barron, senior medical director of infection prevention and control for UCHealth and one of the top infectious disease experts in Colorado.

While UCHealth hospitals can care for kids and adults with RSV, the overflow teens coming from children’s hospitals may need help with other health problems. It’s common, for instance, for some teens with complicated orthopedic issues — including those who need limb reconstruction — to receive help at University of Colorado Hospital, Barron said.

And UCHealth hospitals in northern Colorado routinely care for pediatric patients.

The volume of children who have needed hospitalization has risen at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins and Greeley Hospital, said Dr. Diana Breyer, chief medical officer for UCHealth’s northern region.

Breyer and other chief medical officers at Colorado hospitals routinely keep in touch with one another.

“Across the state, we have good working relationships. There’s a lot of communication,” Barron said.

And at the Anschutz Medical Campus, doctors with adult, veterans and children’s hospitals are typically affiliated with the University of Colorado School of Medicine, Barron said.

“Children’s (Hospital) helped us during the pandemic when COVID-19 was overwhelming our capacity. They took COVID patients for us. We’ve always assisted one another,” said Barron, who is also a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Cases of RSV — which stands for Respiratory Syncytial Virus — are so high early in the season this year that Colorado health officials recently sent out a health alert to medical providers, schools and daycare centers, urging them to be aware that RSV is spreading widely and to help families be on guard.

Over the last month, there has been double the typical number of RSV cases in the Denver area, according to state health officials.

Nearly all the RSV-related hospitalizations thus far this year have been among children. That’s causing unprecedented patient volumes at Children’s Hospital Colorado, according to Dr. Kevin Carney, associate chief medical officer.

“Our pediatric intensive care units, inpatient units and emergency departments are operating at remarkably increased volumes and on some days, maximum capacity,” said Carney, a pediatric emergency medicine specialist.

Along with RSV, doctors also see early spikes in flu cases.

RSV typically poses the greatest risk to infants and younger children. Parents should seek medical help immediately if their babies or children are having trouble breathing.

Teens and adults also can get RSV, but often the virus may seem like a cold.

“It can cause symptoms like a runny nose, cough, fever and chills,” Barron said.

Of course, those can also be the symptoms people can get with either COVID-19 or the flu, Barron said.

That’s why it’s wise to get tested.

“If you’re sick, it could be COVID-19, flu or RSV,” Barron said.

There are treatments for both COVID-19 and the flu. In both cases, it helps to start these treatments quickly after the onset of the illness.

“We have Paxlovid and monoclonal antibodies for COVID-19 and Tamiflu for the flu,” Barron said. “So, we have measures that are valuable if you get tested. The other reason to get tested is if you have a vulnerable person in your home.”

RSV can be dangerous for people of all ages with compromised immune systems.

“It can be life-threatening in a transplant patient, cause pneumonia, and be very serious in other immunocompromised people,” Barron said.

With RSV spreading so widely this fall, along with flu and COVID-19, Barron advises high-risk people to be very careful.

“People who have underlying lung diseases like asthma or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) might be affected. They can develop a lot of wheezing and trouble breathing. We certainly see this in children. That’s why so many may end up hospitalized. They’re having issues breathing,” Barron said.

Infants who are at risk for RSV can receive a monoclonal antibody called palivizumab.

And pregnant women may soon be able to take an RSV vaccine. Pfizer is seeking approval now for a new vaccine. The immunities would then pass to their babies and reduce the chances that infants would get the illness.

Barron and others strongly recommend vaccines during pregnancy.

“COVID-19 and flu can have serious impacts on pregnant women. So, vaccines are a win-win for mothers and babies,” she said.

Barron advises parents to be attentive but shouldn’t panic about RSV and other infectious illnesses.

“Wearing masks, washing hands frequently, and cleaning surfaces are important infection prevention measures against these viruses that we are all familiar with now, and they work,” Barron said.

“We see RSV every year. We see flu every year. The issue now is that because of the pandemic and all of the measures we’ve had in place, you have a larger group of individuals who have never been exposed to these illnesses. Herd immunity doesn’t exist,” she said.

Here is additional information about RSV and other infectious illnesses from experts at Children’s Hospital Colorado:

  • RSV and respiratory illnesses are most severe in babies under one year old. If your baby is struggling to breathe, call 911 or take them to the emergency department.
  • Children’s Hospital pediatric emergency departments are open 24/7 on the Anschutz Medical Campus, the South Campus in Highlands Ranch, the North Campus in Broomfield, and in Colorado Springs.
  • In addition, families in north Denver can use the newly opened urgent care and outpatient clinic at the new Wheat Ridge location.
  • If you are seeking assistance or care, please call your primary care provider or the Children’s Hospital Colorado ParentSmart Healthline™at 720-777-0123, to receive free healthcare advice from registered, experienced pediatric nurses, available 24/7.
  • It is crucial for us all to take protective measures to keep our kids safe and healthy in Colorado. While our children were not as affected by the pandemic a year ago, this year is very different.
  • It is essential that everyone eligible (those over 6 months) gets an influenza vaccination as soon as possible.
  • To prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses, handwashing, staying home from school/work when sick, covering coughs/sneezes, and masking when symptomatic are key to preventing transmission.
  • We urge everyone who can to get the COVID-19 vaccine and a flu shot and to make sure all kids are up to date on their other vaccine schedules.

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Coloradan. She attended Colorado College thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summers in college.

Katie is a dedicated storyteller who loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as an award-winning journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and at an online health policy news site before joining UCHealth in 2017.

Katie and her husband, Cyrus — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer — have three adult children and love spending time in the Colorado mountains and traveling around the world.