Respiratory illnesses on the rise nationally, including Pitkin County

Respiratory syncytial virus. Coloured transmission electron micrograph of a respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
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Colorado state officials have warned that respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is on the rise across the state, including Pitkin County.

RSV is a common respiratory illness that comes around in the fall and winter and usually presents mild symptoms. But this year, health officials have said they’re seeing an unprecedented number of cases, with more severe symptoms affecting toddlers and children, according to The New York Times.

The virus is the most dangerous for children under 2 years old, especially those born with underlying conditions, according to Dr. Catherine Bernard, Aspen Valley Hospital’s chief of medical staff.

According to Colorado Department of Health and Environment, there has been 895 cases of RSV in the Denver metro-area since Oct. 1, with 295 cases in schools and childcare facilities.

Flu and RSV cases were down over the last two years as practiced COVID-19 protocols. Now that most protocols have lifted, Dr. Bernard claims that we are seeing an increase in infections due to lack of exposure in previous years.

RSV and Pediatric Care

According to Pitkin County Health Department, across the state there has been a dramatic rise in RSV-related hospitalizations in children under the age of 6 years old.

On Nov. 9, the Children’s Hospital of Colorado issued a statement that they experiencing record volumes of patients with respiratory illnesses in their Emergency Departments. The surge is straining pediatric units, with inpatient units and intensive care units operating well-above maximum capacity.

The number of patients at Children’s Hospital of Colorado is already 30 percent higher than previous years, which is significant considering the virus surge came earlier this year than in the past.

According to Pitkin County Health Department, the Children’s Hospital in Denver has had zero pediatric ICU bed availability over the last week.

Aspen Valley Hospital’s capacity to admit children has not yet been strained by the rise of RSV, according to Dr. Bernard.

However, some patients who come into Aspen Valley Hospital may need to be treated at lower elevations when unable to improve oxygen levels at high altitudes.

“The biggest concern the providers at Aspen Valley Hospital have regarding RSV admissions is that our referral centers at lower altitude (Denver; Children’s Hospital and Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children) have been running at close to full capacity for over a month, so there is always the possibility that transfer might be delayed due to lack of available bed space,” said Dr. Bernard in an email to The Aspen Times.  

For young children who are at the highest risk for complications of RSV, there are preventative medicines given monthly during the season, according to Dr. Bernard. However, there is no vaccine for RSV or preventative medicines available to adults.

Aspen Valley Hospital is currently being hit with patients who have influenza, more than both RSV and COVID-19.

However, Dr. Bernard noted that COVID-19 cases have been rising in Pitkin County.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issued a statement on Nov. 21 that they will be sending email and text reminders to parents or guardians of children aged children aged 6 months to 5 years old whose records show they may be due for their annual flu vaccine.

Not all young children infected with RSV need to be hospitalized. The Center of Disease Control and Prevention recommends contacting a healthcare professional if your child has worsening symptoms, difficulty breathing or keeping down fluids.

What to know about RSV:

According to Dr. Bernard, adults infected with RSV are more likely to experience common flu or cold symptoms that can be treated with over-the-counter medicine. However, adults over the age of 65 years old are at higher risk of severe illness.

Those infected with RSV may be contagious for four to eight days after becoming infected. This virus may spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes, when one touches a surface that has the virus on it, and through direct contact with an infected person through kissing or sharing a utensil.

While the spread may be alarming, there are things preventative measures that can be taken—one’s that we have been practicing for quite some time. These measures include: wearing a mask, washing your hands frequently, staying home while sick, and staying up-to-date on your COVID-19 and flu vaccinations.

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