Colorado health officials warn of early and intense virus season

Colorado health officials warn of early and intense virus season

An alarming number of Colorado children with the respiratory virus called RSV are filling emergency rooms and intensive care beds as the state experiences an “early and intense” start to flu season, health officials warned Wednesday. state and Children’s Hospital Colorado.

“It really isn’t like anything we’ve seen before at Children’s Hospital Colorado,” said Dr. Kevin Carney, pediatric emergency physician and Children’s associate medical director.

Hospital inpatient and ICU beds statewide are operating at or above full capacity, and ER and urgent care visits for respiratory illnesses are 30% higher than on days busier than a normal flu season, which typically runs from January to March.

Children’s is now postponing surgeries and other procedures to have the staff and space to treat children with RSV, the flu and COVID-19, he said.

Statewide, there is a shortage of available pediatric intensive care beds, according to state health department officials who joined Children’s Hospital for a news conference. The number of available pediatric beds has hovered between zero and five in recent weeks, rather than the typical average of 22 open beds.

Children’s Hospital and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment held the news conference to warn parents and urge them to get vaccinated after noting that levels, especially of RSV, have increased in recent weeks.

A graphic from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment released Wednesday

“What’s different this year is how early and severe this baseline respiratory season has been for children in our community,” Carney said. “Our emergency departments are seeing a record volume of patients.”

Although RSV, which stands for respiratory syncytial virus, causes mild symptoms in most people, it can cause serious illness or even death in young children and older adults. Of the 554 people hospitalized in the Denver area in recent weeks, 95% were children. Health officials have counted 144 outbreaks statewide in schools and day care centers.

Infants and children under 2 years of age are at higher risk for dangerous cases of RSV, as are people over 65 or with lung problems. Colorado is seeing “unprecedented levels” of RSV transmission, said state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy.

He asked people to get vaccinated, both for the flu and COVID-19, and to stay home if they are sick, even with mild symptoms.

“A mild infection in me or it can translate to a life-threatening infection for a young child or an older adult,” he said.

Chart provided by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment

The flu, COVID, and RSV are different illnesses, but it’s possible for people to have more than one at the same time. Symptoms of RSV are runny nose, decreased appetite, cough, sneezing, fever, and wheezing, which can make it difficult for parents to tell the difference between RSV, the flu, and COVID.

The COVID-19 pandemic “disrupted” the regular patterns of the respiratory virus season, pushing it back to early fall instead of winter. While the reasons aren’t fully understood, it’s due in part to health precautions taken during the pandemic, including isolation and masks, which have also suppressed the transmission of other respiratory illnesses, Herlihy said.

Health officials are seeing RSV spreading through the summer and increasing in the fall, and last year, they saw an increase in flu transmission in late spring, both unusual time frames, he said.

“We don’t really fully understand, but it’s very clear that the pandemic has disrupted how and when these viruses spread,” Herlihy said.

Flu hospitalization numbers are still lower than typical peak levels, but are higher at this point in the season than Colorado’s most severe flu season on record, which was in 2017-18, he said. Health officials said they are not sure when the disease might peak.

Chart provided by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment

The number of flu vaccine doses administered this year in Colorado is on par with 2021 levels but below 2020 levels, said Scott Bookman, director of public health response for the state health department.

“So here we have an opportunity to increase our flu vaccination rates as we get closer to this flu season,” he said.

Children’s Hospital officials encouraged parents to check with their pediatrician first if they are unsure if their child needs to go to the emergency room. Meanwhile, the state health department is spreading the word about the rise of RSV and the flu in schools, preschools, and day care centers.

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