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Tampa Bay children’s hospitals report surge in respiratory illnesses

Hospital doctors warn parents to be extra vigilant as cases of RSV, colds and influenza fill hospital beds in several states.
Pediatric nurse Chelsea Macatangay listens to the lungs of 3-month-old Jasmine-Ruth Awung as parents Delphine and Columbus look on in her room at University of Maryland Children's Hospital. The infant is one of the many patients in Maryland with respiratory syncytial virus or RSV. Children's hospitals in Tampa Bay are also reporting a surge in RSV cases.
Pediatric nurse Chelsea Macatangay listens to the lungs of 3-month-old Jasmine-Ruth Awung as parents Delphine and Columbus look on in her room at University of Maryland Children's Hospital. The infant is one of the many patients in Maryland with respiratory syncytial virus or RSV. Children's hospitals in Tampa Bay are also reporting a surge in RSV cases. [ JERRY JACKSON | Baltimore Sun ]
Published Oct. 24|Updated Oct. 24

ST. PETERSBURG — The intensive care department at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital has been at or near capacity in recent days as a surge in cases of respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, has threatened to “overwhelm” the St. Petersburg hospital.

In Tampa, St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital is also reporting a significant increase in cases of RSV, as well as other respiratory illnesses, including influenza and rhinovirus, a version of the common cold.

Across Florida, more children sick with RSV have been visiting emergency departments compared to previous years, according to Florida Department of Health reports. RSV is also spreading in other parts of the United States, with children’s hospitals at capacity in Virginia, Maryland and around Washington, D.C., according to a Washington Post story.

“We expect RSV cases will continue to climb in the next few weeks,” said Meghan Martin, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at All Children’s. “We’re just being overwhelmed.”

RSV is an infection of the lungs and respiratory tract. Symptoms are similar to a common cold with low-grade fever, sore throat and congestion or a runny nose, according to the Mayo Clinic.

But it can cause severe infection in infants 12 months and younger, older adults, people with heart and lung disease and those with a weak immune system. Infants who were born prematurely are especially vulnerable to the infection. About 14,000 adults 65 and older die each year from the disease, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Related: Doctors expect a bad flu season. Here’s what Tampa Bay should know

RSV cases usually increase during flu season, which typically runs between October and March.

Nurses, respiratory therapists and other medical staff at All Children’s have been keeping a constant check on admission numbers to ensure they have enough staff to treat patients, Martin said.

Most of those admitted to intensive care are suffering breathing difficulties and have low blood-oxygen levels, Martin said. Usually, their oxygen levels can be boosted with a device that provides oxygen-rich air to lungs through tubes connected to the patient’s nasal cavities.

Meghan Martin, M.D., Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital
Meghan Martin, M.D., Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital [ ALLYN DIVITO | Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital ]

“The worst-case scenario would be a breathing tube and let the baby rest so we take over breathing while their lungs heal,” Martin said.

Cases of RSV are higher than in previous years at St. Joseph’s Children’s, said chief medical officer Megan Tirone.

Like most respiratory diseases, the virus is primarily spread through droplets expelled by the infected. That makes good hygiene like frequent hand-washing essential to lower the risk of catching the virus, Tirone said.

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The surge in cases could strain hospitals expecting to also treat patients from this fall’s flu season. Florida experienced an unusual surge in flu cases in early summer this year that was likely the result of the pandemic throwing off the usual infection cycle. But doctors anticipate an active flu season this fall.

Related: Flu season’s almost over, but Tampa Bay kids keep getting sick

“We’re worried about the upcoming flu season and do encourage vaccination,” Tirone said.

Dr. Megan Tirone, chief medical officer for St. Joseph's Children's Hospital.
Dr. Megan Tirone, chief medical officer for St. Joseph's Children's Hospital. [ BayCare Health System ]

Doctors from both hospitals urged parents to seek prompt attention for their children if they are experiencing symptoms.

Parents should take their child to an emergency department if their child has difficulties like using extra muscles to breathe, signs of dehydration or trouble keeping fluids down, Martin said.

“We have to do our best to keep our little ones safe,” she said.

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