By Amy Harris 

Maine’s pediatric hospital beds are already at capacity with an early surge in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cases, according to hospital officials from around the state. The surge is believed to be related to precautions during the pandemic. Without prior exposure to infection, many young children have no immunity because they weren’t going to daycare, and family members were taking measures to reduce exposure to COVID-19. So more young children than usual, from newborns to age 2½ years, are getting sick. 

Emergency rooms are also overcrowded, and hospitals and medical systems are postponing non-urgent pediatric procedures such as surgeries. Primary care and pediatricians’ offices are drowning in an extraordinarily large volume of calls and visits.  

Dr. Mary Ottolini, the George W. Hallett Chair of Pediatrics at Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital in Portland, reported, “Just in the month of October, we admitted more than twice the number of patients than we have ever admitted in the month of October. We have admitted a record number of RSV patients. Half of our patients admitted right now have a respiratory virus, and the majority of those are RSV.” 

RSV is not a new virus, nor is this year’s strain of RSV any more severe than in the past. And in general, most children and adults who get RSV do not get very sick or need hospital care. Nearly all children are infected before their second birthday. There is no vaccine or medication to prevent getting RSV. Because it is a virus, there is no cure, only supportive care. 

Symptoms of RSV infection are very similar to those of a common cold. Providers encourage parents to seek care from primary doctors if their child is sick, and leave emergency rooms and hospital beds free for the sickest patients. Parents or caregivers should call their child’s pediatrician or primary care provider if the child is congested, not drinking enough fluids, or experiencing worsening symptoms. 

RSV spreads like colds, flu, and COVID-19 through tiny airborne droplets. That is why hospital leaders and doctors urge families to return to the COVID-19 precautions they all became so good at following during the pandemic: staying home when sick, masking, and handwashing. In addition, they urge family members who live with children younger than 2 years old to consider wearing a mask when in public indoor settings to avoid bringing RSV home.

Medical providers emphasize the importance of flu and COVID-19 vaccines for all Mainers, young and old. Vaccination can help keep hospital beds open for sick children. Warnings of a winter triple epidemic (RSV, flu, and COVID-19) worry hospital administrators and public health officials about the capacity of Maine’s healthcare system. James Jarvis, M.D., senior physician executive at Northern Light Health, says that the healthcare system is “already under siege” because of staffing shortages and supply chain disruptions. Vaccination against COVID-19 and flu is one way to ease the burden on the healthcare system, especially during the current RSV surge in Maine’s youngest residents.