‘Unprecedented volumes’ at children’s hospitals as RSV surge rages on

A respiratory virus is wreaking havoc on kids and children’s hospitals. Families are waiting in emergency rooms for more than five hours, and doctors say we are in the middle of an unusual surge that is making kids very sick.

The virus causing all the trouble is respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.

Pediatric hospitals throughout western Washington are operating at maximum capacity, or even beyond.

Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma said on Wednesday, 212 kids came to their emergency department for care — about 70% more than normal.

“This week, the average wait time in our ED lobby has been 5-6 hours at any given time,” said spokesperson Kalyn Kinomoto via email. She said that’s because of “unprecedented volumes of children with respiratory illnesses.”

A spokesperson for Seattle Children’s Hospital said its emergency department is fluctuating between 200% and 300% capacity, hitting record volumes.

Parents Kyle and Chelsy Pease from Gig Harbor noticed their 6-month-old having a hard time breathing last week. They took their baby boy, Tez, to a pediatrician, who told them to get him to the emergency room.

“I walked through the ER waiting room (at Mary Bridge) and there are like 60 or 70 people waiting to get their kid in. So I was like, oh my gosh, thank God we had the ambulance take us in and we got directly into a room,” Pease said.

Now Tez has been in the hospital for eight days, diagnosed with RSV. He also developed pneumonia.

“He is hooked up to oxygen right now and that’s kind of what’s keeping him going,” Pease said. “With how much it’s attacking his lungs and how hard it is for him to breathe, it’s super, super serious and scary.”

Tez was born premature at 26 weeks, so the Peases say they were already taking every precaution to keep him healthy.

“No grocery stores, restaurants or anything like that,” said mom Chelsy Pease, but Tez still got sick.

At Swedish Hospital in Seattle, Dr. Elizabeth Meade is the medical director of quality pediatrics.

“I’ve been working in hospital pediatrics for 15 years (and) I’ve never seen an RSV season like we’re having now,” said Meade. “Every hospital in our region that cares for children is at capacity and has been for the last couple of weeks,” she said.

She says in older kids, the virus typically brings mild, cold-like symptoms. But for kids under 2 years old, it can cause very severe illness.

“I think this may be a particularly virulent or strong strain of RSV, so it may be more contagious,” said Meade.

She says it is very important to keep your kids home if they have respiratory symptoms.

“Not going to day care, not going to school,” said Meade.

Kyle and Chelsy Pease say they want other families to be aware of what’s going on.

“It’s definitely the most extreme virus we’ve encountered,” said Kyle Pease. He said Tez was showing signs of recovery, but the situation was still a “roller coaster of the worst to bad, and back to the worst and then to bad.”

“We just need to be able to provide the resources for kids who do get sick, because it would be really scary if I were a mom and trying to get my kid in and not able to,” said Chelsy Pease.

Mary Bridge said people can help with hospital volume by taking their kids to urgent care instead of the ER when possible.

Mary Bridge has the following advice on where to seek care:

The emergency room is for any medical condition or injury that threatens life or limb. It’s the best option when immediate medical attention is needed. These conditions include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Seizures
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Severe allergic reactions
  • Severe burns
  • Severe skin infections
  • Sudden visual changes
  • High fever with headache
  • Fast heartbeat that doesn’t slow down
  • Severe dehydration
  • Persistent dizziness

Urgent care is for illnesses or injuries that are not immediately life-threatening, but need to be treated today.

These include:

  • Cold or flu symptoms
  • Earaches
  • Minor burns and bruises
  • Simple wounds or abrasions
  • Sore throats
  • Wheezing
  • Coughs
  • Fevers
  • Minor head injuries
  • Sprains
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Mild dehydration
  • COVID-19 symptomatic testing
  • Pediatric virtual care