Salem health care providers expect to see more kids in hospital as respiratory viruses spread

Local health care providers are seeing an increase in respiratory syncytial virus cases, which combined with an increase in Covid and flu hospitalizations is anticipated to add stress to health systems across the state in the coming months. 

Salem Health has started to see an increase in RSV cases, and is preparing for the number to continue to rise, according to an email from Michael Gay, a spokesman. 

RSV is a virus that causes cold symptoms including a fever and cough. It typically circulates in the winter and generally causes mild illness, but can cause severe illness in children, the elderly and people who are immunocompromised.

RSV is expected to cause more hospitalizations this year than typical, according to local and state health care providers.

On Nov. 14, Governor Kate Brown issued an executive order to address a surge of pediatric cases and hospitalizations across the state. 

Since Oct. 29, the state pediatric hospitalization rate has more than tripled to 7.6 hospitalizations per 100,000 children, and is soon expected to exceed its previously recorded peak of 9.5 per 100,000 children, according to the executive order.

The rate is being driven by hospitalizations of children under six months old, according to the order.

“In order to ensure the state and local authorities have the resources needed to respond to pediatric respiratory infections, a declaration of emergency is necessary,” the order reads.

The order will deploy emergency health care professionals and designate emergency health care centers, aiming to provide more resources to pediatric patients.

“We are grateful for the recognition of the strain RSV is placing on the health care system. We are investigating what new resources are available through the executive order,” Gay said in an email to Salem Reporter. 

Though both children and adults can get RSV, children are more likely to be hospitalized by it. Salem Health has 10 beds in its pediatric unit, Gay said Nov. 16. Oregon has only two children’s hospitals, both in Portland, and a third Portland hospital with pediatric intensive care unit beds.

RSV hospitalizes children annually, but case rates and severity have increased this year, said Dr. Doug Eliason, a doctor of osteopathic medicine at Salem-based P3 Health Partners Oregon, which specializes in regional population health.

“RSV affects our airways and causes swelling, so for you or I it causes hoarseness and cough and discomfort, but if you’re an infant or young child your airways are small. So it doesn’t take much swelling to begin to compromise those airways and make them a lot sicker.” Eliason told Salem Reporter.

Salem Health recommended that sick children should stay home from schools and daycares. The hospital also recommended wiping down high-touch surfaces and keeping children with colds hydrated, and using nasal suction with saline to relieve congestion. 

“Parents should watch for respiratory distress in young children – rapid breathing or tummy breathing, blue coloration around mouth, refusal to drink and decreased wet diapers. If any of these symptoms transpire, parents contact can the child’s primary care provider for direction,” Gay said.

Adults and seniors with compromised immune systems are also more at risk of a severe case, he said.

With Covid cases and Flu cases leading to increased hospitalizations, some have coined the term “tripledemic” to describe the increased load on health care providers. 

“When a rainstorm comes, and another rainstorm comes right after it, and another rainstorm – you get flooded. We’ve got three things coming at us,” Eliason said, referring to Covid, RSV and the flu. “So what it’s going to do is stretch our resources, because yes, we can deal with any one of them reasonably well. Two of the three a struggle, and three of the three a real struggle.”

Santiam Hospital began operating an in-house lab to test for Covid during the pandemic. The lab added flu and RSV testing this summer in anticipation of high rates during the fall, said Dr. Sarah Comstock, a scientific consultant for the hospital’s SCOPE lab.

Comstock said she has seen an increase in cases this fall, and noted that the lab mostly tests people who are symptomatic, and provides testing for area hospitals, schools, universities and employers.

Of around 150 tests taken at the lab in the past week, 20% were positive for the flu, and 16% for RSV and 5% for Covid, Comstock said.

Typically, she said patients only test positive for one of three of the illnesses.

Eliason said that much of what the community learned during the pandemic can be applied to mitigating RSV. 

“With the tripledemic, or the big three, coming they all share a couple things in common, and one of them is that they are respiratory spread. And that respiratory spread means that you, I and everybody have some things at our fingertips that can make a difference,” he said.

Covid and flu vaccinations, he said, are the best preventative measure to take. Vaccinations are proven to decrease the severity of cases, and reduce chances of hospitalization. There is not a vaccine available for RSV. 

Eliason also recommended wearing masks in crowded places, like grocery stores, and considering limiting in-person holiday gatherings.

“At this point, we don’t have an RSV vaccine, so we don’t have that option. But we learned a lot of things from Covid, and one of them was that social distancing, masks, hand sanitizers, hand washing work. And let’s not abandon them,” he said. “We found things that are effective in keeping us healthier and not as sick. It just makes sense.”

Santiam Hospital offers Covid, flu and RSV testing weekdays from 2 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. and on weekends from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at 134 W Main St, Sublimity OR, 97385. Registration information is available on their website.

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.


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