PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Hospitals across the country are dealing with a spike in cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which can cause serious respiratory infections in children.

In most people, RSV causes a common cold and can be treated at home. For infants or young children, especially those with chronic illnesses, it can be more severe and lead to bronchiolitis or pneumonia.

Dr. Michael Koster, the director of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, told 12 News there is an early peak in the viral season and cases are having an impact on hospital capacity.

“From mid-September to mid-October, we saw just the absolute numbers of RSV infections double,” Koster said.

On top of the early peak and surge in cases, hospitals like Hasbro are also dealing with an inability to accommodate patients from outlying facilities who are experiencing acute respiratory distress and RSV, according to Koster.

“A lot of that has to do with the perfect storm of pediatric children’s hospitals closing down, lack of staffing in the hospitals, specifically nursing, and able to staff all the beds that we have within the hospital,” Koster explained.

For example, Tufts Children’s Hospital in Boston closed on July 1.

“Places that typically received those referrals, like Boston, are now very full and they’re really depending on folks like us and some of the community hospitals that have pediatric beds to provide the care in those settings,” Koster added.

He said it’s led Hasbro and other hospitals to have less inpatient pediatric beds and pediatric ICU beds available.

“There were several times over the last two weeks where we had zero in pediatric ICU beds in the region,” Koster noted.

Koster said he believes the higher volume of cases is due in part to having fewer COVID-19 mitigations and restrictions in place.

“By the age of three, 90% of kids have had RSV at least once,” he said. “We’re seeing just significantly higher numbers of all the COVID kids born during the pandemic, who now have never seen these respiratory viruses before.”

“That increases the overall numbers, which increases the number of kids that are really sick,” Koster added.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people infected with RSV usually show symptoms within four to six days after getting infected, and symptoms usually include:

  • Runny nose
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Wheezing

The CDC notes that with very young infants, the only symptoms of RSV may be irritability, decreased activity, and breathing difficulties.

“Parents can notice that from nasal flaring, grunting, retracting … especially around the collarbones or around the ribs can be a sign of more severe distress,” Koster explained.

Most RSV infections go away on their own in a week or two, according to the CDC.

There is no specific treatment for RSV infections, though researchers are working to develop vaccines and antivirals. Koster said Hasbro is not involved in any trials for either at the moment.

Joseph Wendelken, a spokesperson for the R.I. Department of Health, told 12 News that Lifespan reports aggregate data on the number of positive respiratory pathogen tests each week, which includes the total number of positive RSV tests at its facilities.

“This is the main way we monitor RSV levels in Rhode Island,” Wendelken said. “We do also monitor RSV-related visits to emergency departments through our syndromic surveillance system.”

In response to the increase, Wendelken said the Health Department sent an advisory to health care providers last week with a recommendation to begin offering preventive therapy using a medication called palivizumab (SYNAGIS) for eligible patients.

“This recommendation is in line with updated American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidance on RSV prophylaxis for eligible infants,” he added.

Women & Infants, a Care New England facility, provides the antibody treatment before discharge once RSV season begins, according to spokesperson Raina Smith. She added that all infected infants are “typically managed by their pediatrician or seen at Hasbro.”

Due to the capacity issues at Hasbro, 12 News asked the Health Department if the lack of pediatric beds and pediatric ICU beds due to RSV infections would change the state’s community risk level for COVID-19. That risk level, in part, changes based on hospital capacity.

“Admissions for other illnesses would not affect our CDC COVID levels,” Wendelken said. “The CDC’s community levels are based on new COVID-19 cases, new COVID-19 hospital admissions, and percent of staffed inpatient beds occupied by COVID-19 patients.”