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New York pediatricians see an early surge in cases of RSV

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Medical providers are seeing a surge in cases of respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, across the country. In upstate New York, medical providers say they’re also seeing a rise in RSV.

RSV is usually the kind of virus that crops up during the late fall and winter season. But local pediatricians say this RSV season has started earlier than usual.

For bigger kids and adults without pre-existing conditions, RSV often simply feels like a cold. It doesn’t always require hospitalization. But providers say the problem is that because of pandemic safety measures, there has been a fairly light RSV season for the past two years.

Chris Kjolhede, an attending pediatrician at Bassett Healthcare Network in Cooperstown said because most people were wearing masks and staying at home, there was less RSV being spread around.

“So little kids didn’t get exposed. And then all of a sudden, we’re back to sort of normal: attending school, no masks…and the virus is out there. And it’s spreading like wildfire,” Kjolhede said.

Most kids are exposed to RSV by the time they turn five, Kjolhede said. That means the small children who weren’t exposed to RSV last year, and the year before that, all are developing symptoms now.

Philip Heavner, the system chief of pediatrics at Guthrie, a medical system with locations in the Southern Tier and Pennsylvania, said RSV numbers are three to four times what he usually sees this time of year.

“In a typical year, the kids who were born in the last year, who have never been through a winter where there was RSV, those are the ones who tend to be at risk—and kids with other health problems. We have three years of those now, we have three consecutive years where the kids didn’t get RSV. And so all three years are susceptible now,” Heavner said.

With COVID numbers on the rise again as the weather gets colder, and the flu season starting back up, doctors worry hospitals, ERs and outpatient services could end up swamped.

“When you get into a nasty respiratory season, and these kids do require things that need to be done in a hospital, it doesn’t take long for you to run out of space,” Heavner said.

Kjolhede said the one silver lining is the potential for a vaccine, which could protect especially high-risk patients, like newborns.

“For those of us who have weathered this with these kids and these families for so many years—you’re always biting your nails. ‘Do I need to put this kid on oxygen? Do I need to start an IV? Or can we just wait one more night?’—This is great news,” Kjolhede said.

Pfizer announced Tuesday that its RSV vaccine trial has had promising results. The vaccine is designed to be given to pregnant mothers, to protect newborns from RSV. The company will submit for U.S. Food and Drug administration approval by the end of the year.

In the meantime, both providers pointed out that many kids who don’t have other risk factors can be taken care of at home. Parents should watch for trouble breathing, a fever that doesn’t go down, and dehydration in small children and infants.

To protect small children and older family members from the spread of RSV, people should keep surfaces clean and wash their hands often.