RSV surge, hospital overcapacity issues persist ahead of Thanksgiving

SEATTLE — For weeks, doctors have warned about the continued surge of RSV.

The respiratory virus has put Washington’s pediatric hospitals in crisis mode, with some hospitals at 200% to 300% capacity. Seattle Children’s Hospital says it is using hallways and storage rooms to accommodate the influx of kids.

This week, health care workers face an additional obstacle — Thanksgiving.

Many hospitals plan to operate with smaller staffing numbers, to give health care workers a well-deserved holiday break. But the timing couldn’t be worse, as RSV case numbers show no sign of slowing down.

“Just a sea of coughs everywhere,” describes mom, Kara Graham after taking her daughter to the Emergency Department at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital. “Panicked parents and just extremely sick kids and nurses trying to do everything they possibly can. But a lot of chaos.”

Graham saw the hospital crisis firsthand when her 5-year-old daughter spent six days getting treatment for RSV. Kara says her daughter was taken by ambulance to Mary Bridge, but still had to wait for a bed to open up.

“That is unfortunately not an unfamiliar story to me,” says Dr. Mark Johnson, president of the Washington Academy of Family Physicians.

Johnson says stories like Graham’s speak to the current limitations of hospital capacity. In some areas, even the sickest patients can struggle to receive timely treatment. The bulk of pediatric patients is coming in with RSV at unprecedented rates.

“Everyone who was supposed to get RSV in 2020, or 2021 is getting it now in 2022. And so we’re having maybe three, four, sometimes even 10 times the number of expected cases showing up in our community,” says Johnson.

Health care workers have already struggled to meet patient demand, an issue that will likely be exacerbated this week, predicted Dr. Tony Woodward with Seattle Children’s Hospital.

“We’re very scared,” says Woodward ahead of his hospital’s reduced holiday staffing. “It will just lead to slower service for people who need to be seen.”

In addition to health care staffing, bed availability is one of the biggest challenges. Washington has just 500 pediatric hospital beds. Hospitals across the country are facing similar issues.

“Over the years, our hospital capacity has decreased,” says Johnson. “But when we get a surge of illnesses like this, you know, barely prepared and our capacity is stretched to the max.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics asking President Joe Biden to declare the RSV surge a national emergency.

Johnson agrees. “I do think we’re at the point where it is a national emergency.”