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What families can do to avoid the RSV surge ahead of the holidays

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Many hospitals across the country are being overwhelmed right now by a spike in cases of a viral respiratory illness. Patients are still showing up with COVID and the flu. But the spike many medical facilities are seeing is caused by a different virus known as RSV. It causes a respiratory infection that, for adults, usually means mild, cold-like symptoms, but it can cause much more serious conditions, like pneumonia, when it's contracted by infants and children. Seattle is one city that's been seeing a big rise in pediatric cases of RSV. And joining us now to talk about what's happening there is Dr. Shaquita Bell. She's a pediatrician and senior medical director of Seattle Children's Odessa Brown Children's Clinic. Hi there. Thanks for being here.

SHAQUITA BELL: Thanks for having me.

SUMMERS: The cases of RSV that you're seeing there in Seattle, how serious are they?

BELL: Unfortunately, at 16 years of practicing medicine in pediatrics, this is the worst season that I have seen. Our hospitals are very busy. Our clinics are very busy. Our average phone call intake is about 30 calls a day at our clinic. And right now, we're getting 100 a day.

SUMMERS: Wow.

BELL: So it's definitely really bad. And we are absolutely seeing a lot of sick children in our community right now.

SUMMERS: So given that influx, that begs the question here, do you all have enough beds and staff to care for these children?

BELL: It's such a great question. I think it's a complex one. We all know that the health care system has been taxed by the COVID pandemic for the last two years. And to have this outbreak and this severe season of RSV has been very, very hard. All of our hospitals in our region are having maximum capacities. Some of our adult hospitals are taking some cases so that our children's hospital can focus on the respiratory illnesses.

SUMMERS: So, Dr. Bell, how does the current situation, what you all are seeing now compare to what is typically seen this time of year?

BELL: So normally, the RSV season lasts from around October, November to April or May with the peak coming - meaning the worst or most cases coming - in January and February. So if we use that logic and think that right now we're just at the beginning of the season and it's going to get worse and worse for the next couple of months, it's very concerning about the capacity of our health care system and specifically our pediatric health care system to keep up with the rate of infection.

SUMMERS: You know, I can't help but think that there's concern about RSV potentially spreading right as we're heading into the start of the holiday season, Thanksgiving just a few days away. What is your concern there, given that backdrop?

BELL: I think that we should treat it a lot like we have treated all respiratory illnesses in the last two years. We should be very cautious. If people are sick, they should stay home or they should find ways to mitigate risk, like wearing masks and frequent hand-washing. The unique thing about RSV is that adults generally are not very sick because most of us, the vast majority of the population has had an RSV infection by the time they're 2 years old. And while we don't become immune to RSV, we usually don't become as sick the older we get. Therefore, you're less likely to know that you have RSV and could give it to somebody else. So even if you just have a light cold, I would absolutely stay at home or wear a mask and make sure you're trying to keep everybody safe.

SUMMERS: You mentioned masking. And in many parts of the country, masks are not recommended in group settings like day cares and schools. So would it be your recommendation, given what you're seeing, that those kinds of places, day care, schools, perhaps should start having kids mask up again?

BELL: We know that RSV is spread through droplets, which means somebody coughing or sneezing or breathing on somebody else. But we also know that those droplets can drop and land on surfaces and last for hours. So not only would masking help with the risks of spreading RSV but so does hand-washing and washing countertops. Now, the caveat to all of this is that the most at-risk children are children under 1 year of age. And unfortunately, they're not old enough to wear masks. So my advice is, if you have a child or if you are a person who can wear a mask, that it would absolutely be helpful to do so in group settings, especially as we get together for the holidays.

SUMMERS: Dr. Shaquita Bell is a pediatrician and senior medical director of Seattle Children's Odessa Brown Children's Clinic. Thank you so much.

BELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Zamora
William Troop
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.