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RSV cases among children in Idaho peak at unusual time of year

The virus typically has peaked in winter months, but that was before the COVID pandemic prompted masking and distancing.

BOISE, Idaho — Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, health experts have noticed a decline in other respiratory viruses, including flu infections and the common cold.

Medical professionals credit social distancing, sanitation practices, and mask policies for the reduced case counts.

RSV -- Respiratory Syncytial Virus -- is a common respiratory infection that infects children and typically peaks in the spring season.

Dr. Kenny Bramwell, St. Luke’s Health System medical director, said the system went eight months without seeing a single case of RSV, when usually they treat a thousand cases.

“During the times we would usually see RSV -- which would be January, February, and March -- people were still social distancing and wearing masks, so the virus wasn't spreading during that time,” said Beth Kleweno, a pediatric hospitalist at St. Luke’s.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, RSV sends around 57,000 children, ages five and younger, to the hospital each year with around 500,000 emergency room visits. However, this year, seeing very few cases in what are the typical peak months gave medical experts hope, until now.

At the end of July 2021, Dr. Kleweno said, the pediatric floor was at full capacity, and new incoming patients were diverted to hospitals out of the state.

“We are getting a combination of winter viruses, COVID, and the usual summer illnesses that we see, and all those together lead to a higher census on the floor,” she said.

Roughly 2-3% of RSV patients get admitted to the hospital with bronchiolitis, which is inflammation of the lower airways. However, the concern now is having available room to treat those patients.

“As a parent, I think that would be extremely difficult and I would never want to turn anyone away if we don't have enough capacity,” Kleweno said.

Kleweno said right now, staff on the pediatric floor are treating patients with multiple illnesses, illnesses that typically don’t show up at the same time. Those illnesses include pediatric COVID, pediatric RSV, gastroenteritis, and trauma. All of those illnesses at once put a strain on the system.

If all of the viruses continue to circulate and spread, Kleweno said she would not be surprised if they hit capacity once again. She urges all parents and children eligible to get a COVID vaccine, to protect children from getting both respiratory viruses at once.

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