New Jersey hospitals are crowded with children who are coughing and struggling to breathe.
But this is not COVID-19. even the flu.
An outbreak of a viral respiratory infection is sending children to emergency rooms across the state. The biggest culprits are enteroviruses and rhinoviruses and a few cases of RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), all of which often produce cold-like symptoms.
But in severe cases, they can cause respiratory distress.
“Some ICUs are at capacity,” said Dr. Uzma Hasan, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, part of RWJBarnabas Health.
Another school year has just begun, helping the virus spread, and a flood of respiratory illness cases has already filled pediatric hospital beds. The loosening of masks and other measures against COVID-19 has also contributed to the surge in infections, experts say.
RWJBarnabas Health physicians have seen a dramatic increase in pediatric enterovirus and rhinovirus cases. Usually, these viruses cause only mild symptoms. But they can sometimes be serious, especially for those with asthma and certain underlying medical conditions.
“Over the past few weeks, we’ve started to see[have]a large number of these kids in our emergency rooms, floors and pediatric intensive care units,” Hassan said Wednesday.
She said it appeared to be a national trend. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a warning earlier this month about enterovirus D68, a rare but serious childhood respiratory infection that can cause shortness of breath and progress to acute flaccid myelitis, a Nervous system disorders that can cause muscle wasting to weaken or even paralyze.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Health also issued an advisory to pediatricians and hospitals warning of high levels of enterovirus and rhinovirus activity in recent weeks. It requires doctors to pay attention to AFM, which often precedes enterovirus D68 disease.
“The good news is that the vast majority of people will have mild illness,” Hassan said. “Those who are hospitalized seem to be getting better soon.”
Cooper University Hospital in Camden has also reported an increase in respiratory cases in children, a spokeswoman said.
According to Hassan, enteroviruses appear to surge every few years.
“This year, we’ve seen a huge increase,” she said.
Hassan noted that 2020 was an outlier, with particularly low numbers of respiratory infections, thanks to pandemic precautions — measures that are largely gone now.
“The state is monitoring hospital admissions and pediatric intensive care unit censuses statewide on a daily basis,” a New Jersey Department of Health spokesperson said in a statement Wednesday. “The department also plans to call hospitals to assess pediatric capacity. “
Hassan said despite the wave after wave of cases, a lot has been learned from the pandemic.
“We are planning to deal with these surges and come up with some travel plans to accommodate more children,” she said.
While several respiratory viruses are circulating, enteroviruses appear to be the main driver of new cases.
“Enteroviruses are by far the most dominant viruses,” Hassan said. “We’re starting to see a slight uptick in RSV. Influenza — we haven’t seen overwhelming numbers yet.”
But that could change in the coming weeks and months. She noted that Australia’s flu season – which could be a precursor to one in the US – has shown unusually high case counts.
“So we’re expecting a high number of flu numbers this year,” she said.
The hospital wants to send a message to parents — and encourage proper hygiene and vaccination — that some children are at higher risk, as Hassan emphasized.
She said: “We know that there are some high-risk groups that are at risk for severe disease, these are children with asthma, underlying chronic lung disease. Children with neurological impairment tend to have severe disease. Children with congenital heart disease Children can have serious illnesses – so they are already on our radar.”
In Cooperman, she said some children were coming into the emergency room with trouble breathing.
“Kids who come into the emergency room, yes, they do have signs of difficulty breathing, and that’s why they end up being treated for breathing,” Hassan said. “Sometimes if they have asthma, they’re on steroids, and if they’re in severe distress, usually they end up in hospital and sometimes in the ICU.”
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Spencer Kent can be contacted at email@example.com.