Nov 2, 2022 - News

Philadelphia hospitals see rise in RSV infections among children

Illustration of a stethoscope in the shape of a pair of lungs

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Philly health officials are seeing an unexpected rise in respiratory illnesses in children as the city braces for possible dual waves of flu and COVID infections this winter.

Why it matters: The early onset of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) reported nationwide could put a strain on hospitals that are already preparing for a surge of patients ill from other viruses, Axios' Herb Scribner reports.

What's happening: RSV cases have skyrocketed in Philadelphia in recent weeks and positivity rates have been "much higher than previous seasons," according to the city's preliminary surveillance data.

  • "It's a sharp and early increase" in RSV cases, Shara Epstein, medical director for the city health department, told Axios.

By the numbers: Philadelphia's RSV cases surpassed 500 in mid-October, rising from around 80 in early September, according to data from six hospital laboratories.

  • Approximately 28% of tests were positive, up from less than 10% in early September.

State of play: RSV is a common respiratory virus that can cause cold-like symptoms, with mild cases lasting about two weeks.

  • But the virus can cause more severe infections and lead to hospitalizations for some infants, young children and the elderly, particularly for those with pre-existing health conditions, according to the CDC.

The big picture: Across Pennsylvania, RSV levels are higher than usual for this time of year, prompting the state health department to issue a health advisory last month.

  • Meanwhile, 90% of beds in pediatric intensive care units were occupied as of Oct. 21, though not all of those patients suffered from RSV, a Pennsylvania Department of Health spokesperson told Axios.
  • State health officials recommend that residents get their influenza and COVID-19 vaccines as soon as possible to protect themselves against potential complications from respiratory infections.

Of note: There is currently no vaccine for RSV.

What they're saying: The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia reported two weeks ago that its system was strained by "extremely high" patient volumes, likely driven by the surge in respiratory viruses.

  • Ron Keren, CHOP's chief medical officer, said at an Oct. 19 briefing that the hospital has seen an increase in the number of infants with more severe RSV.

Keren suggested that prevention efforts during the pandemic likely shielded infants and children from exposure to respiratory viruses, like RSV.

  • "So they were not able to build up an immune defense to RSV and other respiratory viruses, leaving them vulnerable now to … having more severe disease," he said.

The bottom line: Epstein said the city doesn't expect the rise in RSV cases to strain city hospitals this winter, and that health officials are planning to connect with schools, families and health care providers to share information about RSV.


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