As RSV cases climb among kids, here’s what health experts say you should know 

By Kyle Davidson, Michigan Advance

Amid a surge in visits to pediatric emergency rooms, doctors and public health officials are advising families to take preventative measures to stop the spread of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and other respiratory illnesses. 

Increases in RSV cases have been found in multiple regions of the U.S. including Michigan, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While the virus usually causes mild cold-like symptoms, cases can be serious for older adults and infants. 

“If you believe that your child or your baby is struggling to breathe, if you think that they are in distress, then the emergency department is the right place for you,” said Dr. Erica Michiels, a pediatric emergency department physician at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids.

RSV is not a reportable condition, so the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) cannot confirm the number of cases and deaths due to the virus, said Lynn Sutfin, a public information officer for the department. 

In the U.S., RSV is the leading cause of bronchiolitis — inflammation of small airways in the lungs — and pneumonia in children younger than 1.

Most individuals with the illness recover in one to two weeks, but more severe cases may require hospitalization. 

According to a statement from Michigan’s Region 6 Healthcare Coalition, RSV usually hits Michigan between November and March of every year.

DHHS advises people to use the following practices to prevent the spread of RSV and other respiratory illnesses:

  • Stay at home if you are ill and have a fever
  • When coughing or sneezing, use a tissue or the inner bend of your elbow. Avoid coughing or sneezing into the air when possible.
  • Use hand sanitizer or wash your hands often for at least 20 seconds – especially before touching your face, before eating or before providing direct care to someone else and also after coughing, sneezing or touching your face or a surface that may be contaminated.
  • Disinfect frequently touched surfaces such as doorknobs, tables, hand-rails and mobile devices.
  • Consider wearing a face mask and avoid close contact with others.
  • Avoid shaking hands, kissing or sharing cups or eating utensils with others.
  • Avoid illness from other respiratory viruses by getting vaccinated for COVID-19 and influenza.

Due to the masking and isolation protocols from the COVID-19 pandemic, RSV cases have been less common. However, this also means most children under 3 have not been exposed to RSV, which may lead to more children than usual contracting the virus.

COVID cases have trended downward in recent months, but there’s been an uptick in the last week with 12,860 new cases, an increase from the last report when the state said there were 9,992 new cases for the week. A total of 2,920,679 Michiganders have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to the department. In total, 39,697 people have died from the virus, with 123 deaths reported on Wednesday compared to 168 last week.

At a Nov. 9 press conference, Michiels discussed the rise in cases of RSV and when parents should seek care. 

“If your baby’s color is looking blue, they’re working hard to breathe. Those are kids who should come to the emergency department right away,” Michiels said.

Cases like ear infections, fever management, or a long-term cough and runny nose, these cases can be addressed by primary care providers, urgent care centers, or a phone call to your doctor, Michiels said. 

Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital currently has 76 cases of RSV inpatient and has seen 315 combined inpatient and emergency department cases in the last week, according to Andrea Finnigan, senior communication specialist for Corewell Health, which was formerly Spectrum and Beaumont. While the hospital places capacity at 48 patients on the hospital floor and 24 in the intensive care unit (ICU), it currently has more than 75 patients on the floor and more than 45 in the ICU.

The hospital is still accepting patients, but waits may be longer, Michiels said. 

“We are seeing the sickest children first and then moving our way through everyone else to get to all the people who check in and we’re doing things as fast as we can. But we are seeing a lot more kids and so you may wait longer than you’re accustomed to,” Michiels said.

If you believe that your child or your baby is struggling to breathe, if you think that they are in distress, then the emergency department is the right place for you.

– Dr. Erica Michiels, a pediatric emergency department physician at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids

Children who need to be hospitalized may have a roommate, as the hospital doubles up rooms to care for as many patients as possible, Michiels said. The hospital is not generally doubling up in the ICU.

“It feels busy, but it’s very controlled. The emergency department staff is accustomed to dealing with surges, and we will take care of all of you,” Michiels said. 

While the majority of children with RSV will look like they have a bad cold, they will be just fine with good at-home care. Babies who are breathing fast, and whose stomachs are moving hard with each breath should be evaluated, Michiels said. 

Preventing RSV can be tough, as it’s very contagious. The only way to truly prevent it is to isolate, which is difficult for parents who work and children who attend school, Michiels said. 

When it comes to reducing the spread, common sense rules the day, Michiels said. 

“If your child is coughing, and has a runny nose, please don’t take them to the birthday party; please stay home from church that day. Keep them out of school and keep them out of daycare, because your child is infectious and very likely to spread this to other families,” Michiels said.