Doctors at Ohio's children's hospitals sounded the alarm Monday about a rise in respiratory illnesses: both COVID-19 and the respiratory syncytial virus or RSV.
"Nobody wants to be an alarmist," said Dr. Patty Manning-Courtney, chief of staff at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. "But I also feel it's my responsibility to share the trends that we're seeing and to ask for help when we need it."
What doctors are seeing is an unexpected summer surge of respiratory illnesses ranging from RSV and COVID-19 to parainfluenza and rhinovirus, which leads to the common cold. The combination of these viruses has stretched the resources of some Ohio hospitals.
RSV is a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most people recover in a week or two, but RSV can be serious, especially for infants and older adults.
RSV and flu cases dropped dramatically in 2020 when the nation was wearing masks and taking precautions to prevent disease. Fewer people were exposed to RSV and thus did not develop background immunity to it.
But a return to normal has led to a spike in RSV cases nationwide. The peak of RSV cases typically comes during the winter but it has surged during this summer.
"It's very, very unusual, but we are dealing with it," said Dr. Michael Forbes, a pediatric intensive care specialist at Akron Children’s Hospital.
The increase in common respiratory viruses is hitting all Ohio children's hospitals, Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff said. "On top of that, they are seeing some increase in the number of COVID-19 cases. When you put it together, it really creates almost a perfect storm of activity."
Manning-Courtney said COVID-19 cases remain the minority of beds at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, but the number is on the rise.
Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus is currently treating 12 children for COVID-19, an increase from three or four a few weeks ago, said Dr. Rustin Morse, chief medical officer at Nationwide Children's. Of those 12, three were being treated in the hospital's intensive care unit and one was on a ventilator.
In recent weeks, Morse said the hospital has also seen around 250 children test positive for the virus at outpatient centers out of about 3,500 tests administered. That amounts to a positivity rate of 7.1% at Nationwide Children's outpatient centers.
If respiratory illnesses continue to rise, Ohio's hospitals will face concerns about capacity and possibly delaying elective surgeries, Manning-Courtney said. The number of available inpatient beds varied dramatically among Ohio's children's hospitals from 56.5% full in Cleveland to 81.4% full in Cincinnati, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data.
The tips for fighting off respiratory illnesses are the same: wear a mask, wash your hands, maintain distance and if possible, get a vaccine. There is no vaccine for RSV, but the Pfizer COVID-19 is approved for children 12 and older. Nearly 60% of Ohioans have received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
'Added layer of confidence'
On Monday, the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine received full U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval. It had previously been approved under emergency use authorization.
Vanderhoff hopes the change will ease concerns from some Ohioans who were on the fence about getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
"Full approval of this safe, effective COVID-19 vaccine can give Ohioans an added layer of confidence when choosing to be vaccinated," he said.
"We worry that we have to delay care because the volume of children who need us is so great that we have to make some hard decisions about what we can and cannot do, and we just don't want to be there."
Columbus Dispatch reporter Max Filby contributed to this article.
Jessie Balmert is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Akron Beacon Journal, Cincinnati Enquirer, Columbus Dispatch and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.